The invaluable—yet still insufficiently appreciated—American independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke (1919–97) once said: “There is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I’ve never made a documentary. There is no such trip.” Her genre-blurring claim applies equally to her first feature-length project, 1962’s The Connection—a film within a film about an uptight ofay documentarian chronicling a multiracial group of smack addicts, many of them jazz musicians, living in a squalid Manhattan loft—as to her fifth and last, 1985’s Ornette: Made in America, a funky, nonfiction tribute to the great avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman that upends the staid portrait-of-the-artist formula.
The second impeccably restored release this year—following The Connection—of Milestone Films’ vital “Project Shirley,” Ornette: Made in America tinkers with and discards the conventions of the bio doc just as its pioneering musician subject exploded those of jazz. Ornette opens with Coleman and his band, Prime Time, returning to his hometown of Fort Worth in September 1983 after a 25-year absence to perform a nightclub set at the opening of the Caravan of Dreams cultural center and his 1972 opus, Skies of America, with the Fort Worth Symphony at the snootier Convention Center. This performance footage, expertly shot on Super 16 by Ed Lachman, plus other moments in the Texas city—including dramatic reenactments of a wee Coleman growing up near the train tracks and scenes of him reminiscing with old-timers over beer and barbecue about busing and segregation—form the loose throughline of Clarke’s film while also subtly yet sharply highlighting the legacies of racism.
Interspersed throughout the Texas tableaux is footage of an earlier Coleman project that Clarke, who met the musician in the mid ’60s through Yoko Ono, had begun (and soon abandoned) in New York in 1968. This focused on Coleman’s relationship with his 12-year-old son, Denardo, already playing drums in his pop’s band—as he was still doing 15 years later in Fort Worth. The era-toggling soon expands to globe-trotting, as Ornette weaves in shots of Coleman with musicians in Nigeria and Morocco in the early ’70s, sojourns that further expanded his singular sound.
Time and space aren’t the only elements that shift in Clarke’s film—recording formats do, too. Ornette contains several scenes shot on video, a medium Clarke began exploring in the ’70s, resulting in, among several other works, two heady collaborations with Sam Shepard and Joe Chaikin in the early ’80s. Clarke’s use of video in Ornette, including solarization and Paintbox effects, playfully accentuates some of her soft-spoken, sage subject’s more gnomic declarations, such as those about Buckminster Fuller, whom Coleman calls “his best hero,” and his wish to “rather be a man than a male.”
The latter comment is the kicker to an extremely personal anecdote—which I won’t spoil here—Coleman shares, with remarkable equanimity, after Clarke’s offscreen voice prompts him, “Tell us the castration story.” (These bold, behind-the-camera commands are integral to Clarke’s masterpiece, 1967’s Portrait of Jason, which showcases a drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler whom the director filmed in her Chelsea Hotel apartment, and which will be the next installment of “Project Shirley.”) That Clarke would even be privy to this information—and that Coleman would respond so calmly to her request—suggests the intimacy these two exceptional artists developed over their two-decade friendship. The moment also underscores the keen instincts Clarke had regarding riffing and improvising—just as her subject, one of the forebears of “free jazz,” did—while filming. “Ornette has pursued what he wants to do—this got him branded as an eccentric in his youth and a genius now that he’s older,” New York Times critic John Rockwell says of the musician in the film. (Coleman, born in 1930, is still performing.) Clarke followed a similar path; more people just need to discover her genius.