Bringing a legendary jazzman to life on screen is no easy feat — just ask Don Cheadle.
But the makers of Chasing Trane, a new documentary about the iconic late saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane, have a lot of heavy hitters in their corner, including Dr. Cornel West, Carlos Santana, Common, his daughters and former President Bill Clinton.
It also features the unmistakable voice of Academy Award-winning Hollywood A-lister Denzel Washington, who delivers Coltrane’s own words in a voiceover.
The film comes on the heels of several black-themed documentaries, which could represent something of a golden age for the genre, from the James Baldwin starring I Am Not Your Negro; to 13th, Ava DuVernay’s epic takedown of this country’s racially-biased criminal justice system; and the Oscar-winning OJ: Made In America.
Chasing Trane, however, has a unique challenge all its own: How can a film about a low-key, spiritual jazz man — who departed from the music scene (due to his premature death from liver cancer) forty years ago — be relevant in a world where his art form has largely fallen out of favor, and his name may not mean much to a younger generation of viewers?
Adding to the uphill battle for director John Scheinfeld and company: the fact that Coltrane never gave a televised interview, so there isn’t as much found footage for them to work with.
So what Chasing Trane does is lean on Coltrane’s most striking strengths — his spirituality, his political awareness (a particularly moving sequence of film features his solemn tune “Alabama,” which served as a requiem for the four little girls killing in the racially-motivated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham) and his humanity.
“I mean I want to be a force for real good,” he once said. “In other words, I know that there are bad forces. I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force, which is truly for good.”
From Coltrane’s perspective, he could be that force by pushing the boundaries of what jazz could be — incorporating improvisation and international sounds — to inspire, and illuminate life, and from his point of view, God’s glory.
Still, Coltrane was not without his demons. Not unlike his idol, the late Charlie Parker, he too battled drug addiction (which cost him early gigs alongside other jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis), and it took him a while to distinguish himself as a master horn player.
The tragedy of Coltrane is that after roughly a decade in the spotlight, he died at just 40 years old, leaving behind a wealth of soul-bearing music but also a lot of unrealized promise.
As several talking heads in Chasing Trane point out, he was ahead of his time, and his influence can be seen today, not in just jazz but hip-hop, where the more artists experiment with soundscapes and subject matter, the more acclaim and distinction they receive.
Common admits to listening to Coltrane’s seminal A Love Supreme more than perhaps any other album in the film, while Santana says he uses the album to ‘cleanse’ every hotel he stays in on tour. According to Santana, while other artists played the blues, Coltrane “played life.”
For diehard jazz fans, there may be nothing too new here — but like Coltrane, this film is aiming for a higher plane — to break through to people with open minds, hearts and especially ears.
Chasing Trane is currently playing select cities across the U.S. Click here to learn more about screenings.
Adam Howard is a researcher for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which airs on TBS. Follow him on Twitter @at_howard.