Heroin ruins everything, yet again, in N.C. Heikin’s hurtin’ beauty of a doc. The subject is West Coast alto sax hero Frank Morgan, an upstart Crescent Avenue teen player at bop’s height — and, like many of that art form’s founding class, also an addict. In archival interview clips, he recalls “celebrating” the death of his friend Charlie Parker between sets at a club — he and the whole band shot up.
Heikin’s film charts a life in which triumph and tragedy forever alternate. Morgan’s fleet thinking and appealing tone scored him an early record date with Wardell Gray, but his addiction demanded he devote his energies to scaring up quicker cash. His contemporaries dish with sad warmth: Morgan turned to kiting checks, thieving tills, relieving hapless johns of pants and wallets, even robbing banks. (He’s reported to have said that “a black man with a mop and a pail can get into Fort Knox, especially if he’s got a little gray in his hair.”)
Some of this sounds like bull — did he really nick studio mics out from under the nose of Stevie Wonder? But what’s certainly true is that Morgan served thirty years in prison, including a long stint in San Quentin, which harbored musicians enough to field a world-class big band. Heikin introduces Morgan’s exes, his family and friends, and his musical collaborators, who attest to his genius for both crime and music. The latter we hear: His “Come Sunday” will break your heart, sweetly. Like Art Pepper, Morgan had a run at the straight life, starting in his fifties, releasing seventeen albums after getting sprung in 1985. But heroin is a lifelong struggle, and the film, unlike his solos, can’t quite end on a note of triumph.
The usual doc mix of interviews and vintage photos is moving and surprisingly funny, and it’s always great to hear from Gary Giddins. But Heikin’s best inspiration is to stage and film a tribute concert at San Quentin, with George Cables, Ron Carter, Delfeayo Marsalis, Mark Gross, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Morgan’s protégée Grace Kelly, also an alto player. Her tender “Over the Rainbow” might stir tears, and Heikin, unlike so many impatient directors, knows that in a doc about musicians, the music should breathe.
Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story
Directed by N.C. Heikin
Opens December 2, IFC Center