Review: ‘Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary,’ directed by John Scheinfeld

Truth be told, the music of legendary tenor saxophonist and jazz composer John Coltrane is arguably more interesting and insightful than the man’s life story. That doesn’t stop John Scheinfeld’s film, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, from being any less entertaining and thorough, though. It’s a fast paced look at a man who made spiritual, quick witted rhythms, and a true, original talent whose music served as an honest, introspective reflection on the person who created it.

Scheinfeld (Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), The U.S. vs. John Lennon) takes traditional talking head documentary tropes here and jazzes them up to fit the medium of his subject. Chasing Trane features interviews with various fans (most eloquently Bill Clinton and Dr. Cornel West), family members, music critics, biographers, collaborators, and fellow musicians to help illustrate what Coltrane meant to music history. Coltrane rarely granted interviews, so his written words are read aloud by Denzel Washington, who in a live action version of the musician’s life would make for one heck of a doppelganger. Key moments of Coltrane’s life and times are illustrated using stylish, ethereal looking watercolour techniques. None of these gambits put forward by Scheinfeld are particularly new, but they all work fine enough in their execution.

What sets Chasing Trane apart is how Scheinfeld is willing to let his documentary unfold like a jam session. At times it will speed up; at others it will slow down. It starts off by looking at Coltrane’s time as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet before doubling back on itself to explain Coltrane’s early years. Every note of music created by John Coltrane was remarkably personal, so Scheinfeld’s decision to jump around without losing any narrative beats or momentum feels like a tribute to the man the film has been built around. The lines between the professional and the personal become blurred, and in doing so, Scheinfeld has created something that flows differently than similarly crafted documentaries.

Scheinfeld, much like the always evolving and experimenting Coltrane, isn’t about mythmaking or wallowing in pain, either. Like many of his contemporaries, Coltrane battled heroin and alcohol addictions, and he had his share of failed marriages, but unlike some of the musicians he surrounded himself with, these periods of his life never set his career back irreparably. He was a man who was never satisfied with resting on previous accomplishments; always pushing himself further than some of the biggest musicians of the era. He was a man who could get political on a track without singing a single word, and a spiritual man who wanted his music to function as a messenger of peace.

John Coltrane made complicated music, but was a remarkably straightforward man who put all of himself into every piece or solo he composed. While Chasing Trane is an entertaining and informative documentary, the best moments are still when Scheinfeld cedes the film over to his subject and lets Coltrane’s horn do all the talking for him. Coltrane used to say that he didn’t play jazz; he played John Coltrane. Chasing Trane illustrates that sentiment wonderfully and lovingly underlines why that’s so important.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is now playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto until May 18, with additional screenings on May 26, 29, 30, and June 1. It opens at Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on Friday, May 26, Cinema du Parc in Monteal on Sunday, June 23, and screens at the Winnipeg Cinematheque on June 15, 16, 21, and 22.

Check out the trailer for Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.