Thursday, September 15, 2022

CIFF ’22: Rewind & Play

This French television interview with Thelonious Monk recorded in December 1969 is a lot like the Orson Welles snow peas radio commercial. There is a good reason it was never released (except for the musical footage), but it wasn’t Monk’s fault. It was the interviewer who made an idiot of himself. Monk doesn’t take his guff in the unseen footage Alain Gomis fitted together into the short (65 minute) documentary, Rewind & Play, which screens during the 2022 Camden International FilmFestival.

Henri Renaud really should have known better. He was a jazz musician himself, having recorded with Roy Haynes and Zoot Sims, so it was not as if he didn’t respect the music. Renaud wore many hats, including producer, critic, and general gatekeeper, vaguely something like Gunther Schuller, but he was a terrible interviewer, as Gomis (who previously directed the terrific and jazzy DRC-set drama
Felicite) shows us in excruciating detail.

At first, he just seems a little uncomfortable, which is fair. Monk would certainly be an intimidating interview subject, but eventually his incompetence gives way to disrespect. In this case, Monk’s taciturn public persona serves him well. In fact, Renaud’s disastrous interview perfectly illustrates why Monk would adopt such a notoriously inscrutable public façade.

At least Renaud also asked him to play. You can hear Monk’s brilliance on his classic standards, like “’Round Midnight” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.” Frankly, viewers will just want Renaud to shut up and let Monk play. It is worth noting the music from this aborted television special was eventually released on its own, as a solo concert, without any of the cringy chit-chat.

Of course, Gomis puts it back in to make a point, about race and Euro-snobbery—and his point is taken. This film will really damage Renaud’s reputation, yet it is worth noting Monk seems to get on just fine with some kind of white tour escort we see during the early scenes of their arrival in France. They also both dig the fact that apparently French bars at the time had hard-boiled eggs to nosh (like peanuts), which sounds cool to me too.

This film is making a point, but Monk just sounds so good. More Monk is always welcome, even in such a flawed context. In fact, Gomis presents Monk in a way that inspires new respect and understanding for him and the junk he had to deal with. It is an interesting document that also documents great music. Highly recommended for Monk fans,
Rewind & Play screens virtually today (9/15) through Sunday (9/25) and in-person this Sunday (9/18) as part of this year’s CIFF.