follow us on twitter

dOc on facebook

Microsoft Store

Share: email   Print      Technorati.gif   StumbleUpon.gif   MySpace   digg.gif delicious.gif   google.gif   magnolia.gif   facebook.gif
Permalink: Permalink.gif

Buy from Amazon

Buy from Amazon.com

Docurama presents
On The Road With Duke Ellington (1974)

"Nobody snaps their fingers on the beat. It's considered aggressive. Don't push it, just let it fall...establish a state of nonchalance."
- Duke Ellington

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: May 27, 2002

Stars: Duke Ellington
Other Stars: Louis Armstrong, Mercer Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Don Morrow
Director: Robert Drew

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:57m:54s
Release Date: May 28, 2002
UPC: 767685950234
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

When a Wynton Marsalis composition became the first piece of jazz music to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1997, it was especially gratifying to jazz fans that Marsalis spoke of the many giants on whose shoulders he stood; and in many respects, the greatest, most influential of Marsalis's forebears was Duke Ellington. This documentary about the great composer, pianist and bandleader was shot in 1967, and while the DVD case proclaims that it shows Ellington "at the peak of his career," he seems much more of an aging lion than he does a man in the prime of life. (We see him celebrate his sixty-eighth birthday; he died in 1974.) There's more than a little of King Lear in Ellington here, a man of advanced years raging against the dying of the light and looking back on his life's work. (At one point after a performance, his road manager is trying to hurry him along, but Ellington won't budge from the piano, where he's playing Soda Fountain Rag, the first song he ever wrote, at age thirteen. And he just can't get his fingers around those notes anymore.)

There's some obligatory biographical information, about his family, his debut at the Cotton Club, and of course how young Edward Kennedy Ellington, a notoriously natty dresser, was dubbed "Duke" at age eight. But most of the footage is of Ellington on the road, taking his band and his music to the corners of the earth.

Ellington seems understandably road weary, for at this point, he had been touring nearly nonstop for forty years. One of the marvelous things about Ellington's career is that he always sought out new challenges: symphonies, suites, oratorios, religious music. But of course the audience wanted to hear what made him famous, wanted to hear him and his big band (which looks less big here than in its heyday) play the songs they grew up with. How many times, in four decades on the road, must Ellington have played Satin Doll, or Sophisticated Lady, or Don't Get Around Much Anymore? He seems pretty sanguine about it, or is at least resigned to giving the people what they want; but the narrator of this documentary isn't, and seems more bitter than the man himself that Ellington's more ambitious works weren't finding a bigger audience: "It's because Duke Ellington is a modern composer of such range and depth, subtlety and complexity, that many of those who know him best are saddened to hear him playing the same old tunes endlessly demanded by the big audiences." One of the principal weaknesses of this documentary is that we don't hear from anybody who voices these sentiments, that there are no interviews with "many of those who know him best."

The over-reliance on narration really mars the film, and makes it seem rather old-fashioned. (Then again, this is a big band conductor in 1967, and there's something inherently old-fashioned in that.) It doesn't seem the most advisable or progressive narrative strategy, given that this was made the same year as such landmark documentaries as Titicut Follies and Dont Look Back; admittedly, the subject matter was remarkably different, and Ellington's courtly, distancing manner may not have lent itself to the vérité style.

Ellington seems like such a sad and lonely man here, and there are a number of contributing factors to this. One is that, as a man of a certain generation, he seems to want to keep a safe distance between the documentary crew and his life. (This is no Madonna, Truth Or Dare-style confessional, nor is it even as revealing as Wild Man Blues, a more recent documentary about another privacy-loving celebrity: Woody Allen.) Another is that we barely see Ellington in conversation, with family, or colleagues, or band members; mostly it feels like he's spinning out road-tested anecdotes for the film crew. Louis Armstrong shows up backstage after a concert, and he and Ellington exchange genial words and kisses; they're all too aware that the camera is rolling, and Ellington says he wishes Armstrong had joined him onstage. (So do I.) We briefly see Mercer Ellington, Duke's son, trumpet player and road manager, but this is only in passing, and Mercer's mother doesn't even rate a mention.

The one exception to this is when Ellington discusses his relationship with Billy Strayhorn, "the only man Ellington has ever accepted as a full partner in composing music." Strayhorn, for instance, wrote what became Ellington's theme song, Take the 'A' Train, and the Strayhorn/Ellington discussion, on which man deserves credit for what, has gone on for decades now. At times Ellington seems like the grateful, proud older brother, at others, the limelight hog looking to diminish Strayhorn's reputation. The argument over who was responsible for what bears more than a passing resemblance to one in the film world, between the Welles camp and the Mankiewicz camp over Citizen Kane. (If you're interested in looking into the Ellington/Strayhorn tandem further, I'd highly recommend David Hajdu's excellent biography of Strayhorn, Lush Life.) In what must have been a moment of sorrow tinged with excitement about the opportunity for the documentary crew, Strayhorn died during the making of the movie, and the filmmakers followed Ellington to the funeral; they even capture Ellington reading over Strayhorn's eulogy, just before the services. A tearful Ellington recalls that "with Billy Strayhorn, I always had great security," and that seems like an asset sorely lacking in his nomadic existence.

And ultimately, of course, there is the music. The best details in this movie are the small ones: Ellington liked to compose in the wee hours, and the ideal setting would be a hotel bar after the patrons have cleared out, so he could noodle around on the piano for an audience only of the oblivious cleaning crew. Honorary degrees come fast and furious to Ellington at this stage in his career; he receives one here from Yale, another from Morgan State College, and for the latter, he composes a song, to be played once, and never considered again. (The narrator informs us that there are hundreds of such songs, small bits of Ellington's work forever lost.) We see Ellington in the studio, on stage with his band, and devoting a good amount of attention to his sacred music; this may mark me as hopelessly mainstream and at odds with the filmmakers, but I think the best performance in the film is one that was appended as a coda after Ellington's death. It's Ellington and a small group of musicians doing a lighthearted rendition of Take the 'A' Train, and captures both the man's melodic genius and his whimsy.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The handheld manner in which the movie was shot means of course that the framing and image quality aren't perfect; a good amount of debris shows up in the picture. But the transfer to DVD has been done with care, and the blacks are consistent and strong, though the color in much of the film stock has faded considerably.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: A fair bit of hiss can be heard, but again, that may demonstrate only the problems with the source material. What matters in an effort like this is the music, and while the limited capacity of the recording devices are taxed—some buzzing creeps in on the high notes of the orchestral numbers—I bet you'll find yourself tapping your feet or snapping along to the beat.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Regret To Inform, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Dancemaker, Speaking in Strings, Fastpitch, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Sound and Fury
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Ellington photo gallery
  2. Docurama catalog
Extras Review: The brief biographies are of Ellington (four panels) and director Robert Drew (two panels); the photo gallery is twelve images of Ellington taken during the shoot. The Docurama catalog includes descriptions of twenty-three other home video releases, most of which are available on DVD, and trailers are included for seven of them.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

This may be as up close and personal with Duke Ellington as anyone ever got, and if it lacks the prurient emotional outpouring of an episode of Behind the Music, it's still a marvel to see the Duke doing his thing. You may find yourself looking elsewhere for more extensive biographical information on the man, or for better, fuller recordings of his work, but this is a nice rendering of one of the 20th-century musical giants in his final years.


Back to top

Microsoft Store

On Facebook!
Promote Your Page Too



Original Magic Dress.com

Susti Heaven

Become a Reviewer | Search | Review Vault | Reviewers
Readers | Webmasters | Privacy | Contact
Microsoft Store