Film Review: I Called Him Morgan
I CALLED HIM MORGAN (2016) DIR. KASPER COLLINS
Ostensibly a documentary about the immensely talented young jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan, whose life rose and fell and rose again only to be felled by the woman who had raised him up in the first place. Lee arrived in New York in the 1950’s and was discovered and hired by Dizzy Gillespie when he was 18 years old. He also played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and was on what seemed to be a roll, when after about ten years his heroin use got out of hand and he became too undependable to get work. He was completely in denial and his friends watched helplessly as he hit bottom, pawning his possessions and becoming homeless.
It was at that point that he met Helen, a woman ten years his senior who had established herself as a sort of den mother to many artists and musicians. She had an apartment in the west 50’s and was famous for her hospitality and home cooked meals, which she shared liberally with one and all. When she laid eyes on Lee, she could see immediately that he was in trouble and had the fearlessness to address it head on. She took him in hand without a moment’s hesitation and enveloped him in a cocoon of caring and healing. She saw him through painful withdrawal and saw to his rehabilitation with total devotion. By the time he was cleaned up and back on his feet they were lovers. And theirs was, by all accounts, a deep and affectionate partnership. They adored and appreciated one another.
From then on his career picked up and he was truly a changed human being. He had developed a spiritual side (not based on religion), which kept him from the temptation of drugs. He went back to work with a vengeance and hooked back up with his fellow musicians, formed his own Quintet, and made many beautiful recordings on the Blue Note label. By every standard he was happy and successful for the next ten years. And, while he never ceased to care about Helen, he did start spending time with another woman (it may or may not have been a physical relationship). As that progressed it became more and more intolerable for Helen, who was not silent on the subject. Things reached the point of no return on a terrible winter night during a blizzard when Helen went to see Lee perform at a club called Slug’s Saloon. She was taken by surprise to find the other woman there and when she confronted him, he threw her out into the snow without her coat. That was it for Helen. Something in her snapped and without even thinking, she returned inside the club with the gun that she carried in her purse and shot him dead. He was 33. The whole jazz world was in shock. It was a terrible moment for everyone who knew them both.
The film tells this wonderful and tragic story with extraordinary sensitivity and attention to detail.It is largely based on a taped interview with Helen in 1996, shortly before her death, given to Larry Remi Thomas and it tells the story from her point of view. Hearing her voice makes her vividly real. It is balanced and filled in with interviews with Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul West and others, vintage footage of performances and still images of recording sessions and performances. The film stock appears to be of the same vintage and lends it an air of nostalgia. And, perhaps the best part of this film, is the sound track consisting of the extraordinary music created by this supernova of talent and virtuosity. It is sublime.