Rewind & Play
(France/Germany, 65 min)
Dir: Alain Gomis
Jazz fans will rejoice at seeing brilliant jazz musician Thelonious Monk performing in Paris in 1969. He appears to be channelling the music, seemingly in a trance as he massages the ivories. I was especially moved by his rendition of “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
Filmmaker Gomis has retrieved a good deal of footage that ended up in the cutting-room floor and restored it in this film, which won the Best Mid-Length Documentary Award at Hot Docs. But in a strange twist, the footage he reincorporates into this Monk portrait doesn’t enhance the work, providing instead a lot of uncomfortable moments.
The program was Jazz Portrait, a French TV show, and the host was Henri Renaud, who tries to engage Monk in conversation. He asks questions about Monk’s wife, something the eccentric pianist is clearly not interested in chatting about. He asks why Monk put his piano in the kitchen of his apartment. The answer, as it turns out, is simple and practical: it was the largest room in the apartment and thus the only place it could fit. The question doesn’t lead to much of a revelation.
While many critics have argued this interview footage indicates a microaggression-laden, condescending, casual racism on the part of the interviewer, to me it read more as one of those moments when an interviewer and interviewee are simply not connecting. Renaud isn’t always so great at sensing what’s going on, as Monk—famous for improvising—is obviously uncomfortable with the formulaic demands of a TV show like this one. Renaud asks questions in French even when it’s clear Monk doesn’t understand what’s he’s asking. The clashes in style indicate they are speaking different languages, both literally and figuratively.
As the interview segments grind on, Monk becomes utterly fatigued by Renaud’s routine and obviously doesn’t want to be there. When Renaud asks him if he could speak any French, Monk immediately blurts out “Merci beaucoup!” in a clear effort to bring things to a close. He then suggests he just wants to break for dinner.
At times, I was left wondering the point of Rewind & Play. The concert footage is the best thing about it, but the parts that are supposed to leave us angry are precisely the very segments the producers of the show decided not to include when the show first aired. In other words, they agreed then with us now. Sometimes interviews just don’t work out and are better left on the cutting-room floor. It pained me to see someone as brilliant as Monk being poked and prodded and made to feel so uncomfortable.