Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser On DVD

Thelonious Monk, others. Directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full-screen). Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. 89 minutes. 1989. Warner Home Video 11896. PG-13. $19.98.

Straight, No Chaser is constructed around Michael and Christian Blackwood's extensive 1968 documentary footage of Thelonious Monk. This treasure trove of film includes many scenes of Monk in performance, preparing for a recording session with producer Teo Macero, and hanging out on tour and at home in New York. In 1989, Charlotte Zwerin took the Blackwood footage and shot new footage of Monk's friends, family members, fellow musicians, and critics discussing the man and his music.

All told, it's a fascinating look at one of jazz's most enigmatic figures. Rather than the austere theorist dubbed the "high priest of bebop," Monk comes across as a simple man completely dedicated to and enthralled by his music. The intensity of his discussions with his band over the performance intricacies of his music contrasts with scenes of him dancing on the bandstand, overcome by the sound of that music.

This image of Monk as an impish, joyful trickster is one we frequently lose sight of. But listening to his music, it's impossible to deny the element of play that charmingly informs it. As good as Straight, No Chaser is, it would have been all the better for remembering more of this aspect of Monk.

On paper, Monk's life was a tragic one. He languished in relative obscurity for years, shunned by a public that considered his music "difficult." When he did finally connect, after recording a well-received album of Ellington standards, he spent many of his most creative years unable to perform in New York City jazz clubs due to his drug bust—he was caught holding Bud Powell's stash and refused to roll over on his friend. Yet despite all the adversity, Monk managed to create a phenomenal musical legacy.

Monk's dark times haunt this film like the dead elephant in the middle of the room. People allude to his "illness"—presumably to the recurring episodes of mental illness that plagued him throughout his life and prevented him from performing in his last six years—but other than some candid words from his son about the difficulties of growing up with an unstable father, most people shy away from the subject.

This seems a tragedy. While the 1968 footage caught Monk in a good space, the 1989 interviews with friends and family could have truly told his story—a story that grows dimmer as the years go by. I'd love to see the footage that ended up on the cutting-room floor—it's hard to believe that Zwerin could have gathered Monk's fellow musicians, such as Charlie Rouse, or other pivotal characters in his story, such as the Baroness de Konigswater, and not have asked the questions that now seem so obvious.

Straight, No Chaser represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell the complete story of one of the greatest musicians America has produced. As powerful and important as it is, the film ultimately fails to satisfy because that main character is never kept in focus long enough to fully answer all the questions his life and work raised.