“The incredible journey of a spiritual warrior”

An interview with John Scheinfeld, director of Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

A definitive account of the extraordinary saxophonist whose boundary-shattering music continues to impact and inspire people around the world, this smart and passionate film is for anyone who appreciates the power of music. Directed by critically acclaimed Chicago native John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) and featuring the words of Coltrane spoken by actor Denzel Washington, the film digs deep into the artist’s music via rare footage of the innovator in action and commentary from a range of fans, including jazz giants Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins and a particularly lively Cornel West. Scheinfeld speaks with DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman about making a music-driven portrait, Denzel Washington, and the how Coltrane was a product of his times.

First off, the simple question: Why you and why Coltrane? What's your connections?

As a documentary filmmaker, I love telling stories about great artists, individuals who go their own way and achieve success on their own terms. So when I was asked if I wanted to make a film about John Coltrane I was certainly intrigued. However, the more I read about the man and his music the more I realized this was a very unique and compelling story.

Unlike the cliché to which we’ve become accustomed (artist with great talent comes from nowhere…becomes rich and famous…abuses themselves in one way or another…dies way too young), the story of John Coltrane is the incredible journey of a spiritual warrior who found himself, found God and, in the process, created an extraordinary body of work that transcends all barriers of race, religion, age and geography. This is a story absolutely worthy of telling.

One of the things that sets your film apart from other docs about famous musicians is that it's not a straightforward bio-pic. While there's biographical information, I really think it's about the music itself. Can you talk about that choice?

Thanks for noticing! I did not want to make a straight-ahead biography. Nor did I want this film to be the cinematic equivalent of a music theory class, analyzing the music as so many books about Coltrane have done. What I wanted to create with Coltrane, as I have with other great musicians I’ve had the privilege of make a film about, is a rich and textured portrait of an artist by revealing the critical events, passions, experiences and challenges that shaped his life and revolutionary sounds.

Viewers might also expect to see lots of clips of Coltrane on TV or hear him speaking on the radio, but it's almost all Coltrane's music recordings here, plus Denzel Washington speaking his words at certain points. So is there really no usable TV material? Not even international? Or was this a specific aesthetic choice you made?

John Coltrane was a very private, almost shy individual. During his lifetime he did no television interviews and only a handful of radio interviews. The sound was not good enough on recordings of those interviews for me to use, but happily he had done many print interviews. So I made the choice to pull extracts from those interviews and pepper them throughout the film to illuminate what he was thinking or feeling at a particular time in his life. And I wanted a movie star to read them and make Coltrane an even more vibrant and vital presence in the film beyond just the performance clips. I’m thrilled that Denzel Washington agreed to read Coltrane’s words – his superb talents as an actor really and truly elevate the film in so many ways.

One of the highlights for me is the "Alabama" sequence, for the music, the history, and Dr. Cornel West's commentary. Can you talk about putting together that section and how do you think it's important in terms of the overall structure of the film?

Coltrane did not live and work in a vacuum. He was very much a product of the times in which he lived and I felt it was important to weave that into the fabric of the film. Therefore, when appropriate, I set Coltrane’s story against the social, political and cultural landscape of the times. The genesis of his remarkable composition, “Alabama” gave me an opportunity to craft a sequence that brought together disparate and powerful elements – national tragedy, murder, Dr, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement – all of which blend seamlessly to show that Coltrane was not just a musician who recorded a particular album track. As Cornel West, Common and other voices in that sequence tell us, Coltrane, his music and his message meant so much more to so many people.

Lastly, I'm no jazz expert, but I believe there's a lot of material and music that isn't in the documentary. Can you talk about what's left out and why, and were there any material or songs that you wished you could have included that you didn't?

A great question! For all of my films, my creative team and I cast a wide global net to identify, locate and acquire the most rare, unusual and powerful audio-visual material as possible with which to tell the story. During the production of Chasing Trane, we found hundreds of never-before-seen photographs and home movies, even a live recording by Coltrane and his group that had been forgotten deep within the archive of one of his record companies. Much of this material made it into the film, some, unfortunately, made its way to the cutting room floor.

Regarding the music…because Chasing Trane was made with the support of the Coltrane family and with the participation of the record labels that collectively own most of his catalogue, we were able to utilize a wide array of Coltrane recordings from throughout his career. There are 48 tracks in the film! Certainly there are a few compositions it would have been nice to have included, but I’m confident that even those familiar with his music will be able to hear and appreciate this extraordinary body of work in new and exciting ways.

Part of what I hoped to do is show how the lives of several real people had been dramatically transformed because of their passion for Coltrane and his music.  Associate producer Kiku Iwata found the stories of three individuals who best exemplified this. We shot, edited and scored the sequences, but at the end of the day, while powerful and compelling in their own way, these sequences disrupted the narrative and I made the difficult decision to cut them. The good news is that these sequences will appear on the DVD and may find life in other venues such as The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles that is mounting a Coltrane exhibit this fall.

Paula Froehle