At the New Zealand International Film Festival, Shirley Clarke’s captivating 1985 portrait of jazz icon Ornette Coleman.
Ornette Coleman is an artist who pushed the envelope of definition. Shirley Clarke’s tribute to Coleman and his free jazz legacy attempts to emulate that freedom through film. Chaotic, colourful, ornate, and haggard, Ornette: Made in America attacks the audience as Ornette does a reed.
And so it begins: a white, western shootout between a crowd of colours. Shots fired. One man standing as the smoke clears. Cheers. Cut. A symphony orchestra amidst the Wild West façade: this must be Texas- Ornette’s hometown of Fort Worth to be exact. A middle-aged Ornette stands idly in front of the city’s mayor. His Texas twang resonates, honouring Ornette’s achievements, “…success is possible for all those who take advantage of this wonderful nation’s opportunities…” A withdrawn smile rests between Ornette’s lips. A golden key to the city the size of a teaspoon gets passed; FW shines into its tip. “This key went to the moon,” insists the mayor as he hands it over.
The scene cuts to Ornette taking the stage later that evening in Fort Worth, accompanied by a full symphony orchestra. He shimmers in a white suit with kicks to match. Cut to black boy in brown overalls walking in solace beneath open skies. Ornette is back on stage, preparing for ‘Skies of America’. A mixed crowd of colours, sizes, and ages settles with anticipation. His band of African Americans—including his son on the drums—stands ahead of a predominately white orchestra. Ornette’s symbol (a yellow circle inside a blue triangle inside a red square) beams neon at centre-stage. The show begins.
This montage repeats throughout the 77 minutes that is Ornette: Made in America: cuts, colours, and contrasts. Ornette makes music based on harmolodics (defined by him as “the use of the physical and the mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group”); Clarke’s documentary intends to mimic this confined chaos through film. Yet just as many disgruntled artists walked off stage when Ornette walked on, leaving him to his own aural rumpus, Shirley’s documentary does not attempt to appease anyone but herself.
Jittering, asymmetrical, ambiguous, and captivating, Shirley and Ornette (who composed the soundtrack) use film and music to play off one-another. Together, they create a documentary that tampers between absurdity and reality, between outer space and inner. Ornette, it seems, a man of the moon, plays to a higher conscience, producing music on another plane of existence. “We’re already in outer space, it’s just a matter of looking up or down,” he observes. Often toying with ideas of the afterlife—or lack there of—Ornette asks, “Why wait until then?”
Freedom within confines of space, shape and structure. A black boy in brown overalls carrying his saxophone. Ornette: Made in America stutters between black and white, triangle and square, sexuality and circumcision. Add glitz, a bit of glamour, some Space Invaders font, a few Predator-style camera tricks and you’re well on your way into this musical journey as it becomes more of a portrait of America in the 1980s than one of Ornette Coleman himself.