We begin at what, in a conventional documentary, could be an ending: Jazz innovator Ornette Coleman is lauded by the mayor of his Fort Worth, Texas, hometown and prepares for a celebratory concert. But the late, great director Shirley Clarke (The Connection) wasn’t one to adhere to accepted standards of nonfiction filmmaking for her final feature, which is being released in a pristine new print by Milestone Films. Though she had a semirigid frame to work within—Coleman’s 1983 benefit performance of his composition Skies of America, which is woven throughout the film—Clarke preferred to follow the lead of her soft-spoken subject as often as possible, riffing and improvising as the spirit moved.
Coleman’s life and work are treated as a continuum, which Clarke pulls from at will. The musician’s childhood is recalled via reenactments that have the try-anything verve of amateur theater, and Clarke makes illuminating use of footage in a geodesic dome during Coleman’s impassioned ode to systems theorist Buckminster Fuller. Out of these free-form associations—collapsing past, present and future—a vivid portrait of the man emerges, and though a few sequences (notably a too-jokey outer-space interlude) come off as more desperate than inspired, Clarke’s instincts serve her well. In one particularly inventive scene, she counterpoints a Coleman tune with the beeps and blips of arcade games—an aesthetic masterstroke that manages to capture this vital performer’s essential alienness as well as sum up both artists’ incessant originality.
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