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Form and content collide in inspiring ways in this documentary about Milford Graves — avant-garde jazz percussionist, educator, gardener, martial artist, and cardiovascular researcher. Milford Graves Full Mantis is a jazz movie in every sense of the word. Nearly every spoken line ends in “man.” Mixing older performance footage, lengthy fly-on-the-wall takes, and a few epic instances in which Graves sits down to tell a story, the result is total immersion in the mind-set of this remarkable and unusual man. There are no talking heads and no career bullet points; if you want context outside of what’s given, you are on your own.
We’re witness to ecstatic drum circles and solo workouts, including a mesmerizing sequence in Japan for an audience of autistic children. Graves is an autodidact and tinkerer and Renaissance man, and a job as a veterinary assistant leads to a fascination with recording heartbeats. His DOS-era home system looks straight-up sci-fi, especially as he begins explaining how certain sounds can affect musculature, which then affects emotion. (This is demonstrated, bringing himself to tears.) Directors Jake Meginsky and Neil Young (not that one) occasionally use abstract expressionist imagery while Graves raps to us about his philosophies, and if ever there were a film appropriate for such a technique, it’s this one.
“I went straight to the boss,” Graves explains about learning the praying mantis fighting style. He quit human teachers to just observe the insects themselves. It sounds silly, until you see his moves. More documentarians should consider just going straight to the boss.
Milford Graves Full Mantis
Directed by Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
The Cinema Guild
Opens July 13, Metrograph
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