Beyond the Notes: Sonny Rollins does a second take with filmmaker Dick Fontaine
The wait is finally over for Dick Fontaine’s new film with his long-time friend, the great Sonny Rollins. This year’s release, Sonny Rollins: Beyond the Notes, a BeBop Productions/BBC Arena joint venture is a 78-minute jazz journey built around Sonny’s 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in New York.
For this already historic concert, together with long time collaborators, Bob Cranshaw and Sammy Figueroa, Sonny invited several other jazz legends, who had played with him at different times, to celebrate his music and his life: iconic drummer Roy Haynes, “everybody’s favourite guitar player” Jim Hall, the greatest contemporary bass player, Christian McBride, and, playing with Sonny for the first time in public, another jazz genius, the extraordinary Ornette Coleman.
“To be present with a camera at this wonderful gig was a bit like being transported to Mount Olympus, but there was something even more extraordinary going on for me. The first jazz film I made back in the sixties was with Ornette Coleman and the second was with Sonny, and here they were, these two legends, part of my deep past, together on a stage for the first time. Talk about déjà vu! What I was then determined to do was to incorporate ‘quotes’ from those old films in the new one, just as musicians do, making this not only a film about jazz, but a jazz film!”
Back in 1967 as a young filmmaker, Dick’s fascination with the sound and the spirit of Sonny’s music led him to seek and finally find The Saxophone Colossus who had disappeared from the jazz scene for a second time, this time not to play on the New York bridge of jazz legend, but deep in the woods along the Hudson River.
“I always wanted to make another film with Sonny, not only because I was lucky enough to be the friend of a musical genius, but because of his absolute refusal to compromise, or to give up on his search to connect his art to his life. Such an endeavour reaches way beyond the notes. My question was: How did he find the determination and the imagination to do that? Sonny has since come through the fire, but has never given up on that quest, never lost that commitment. To understand that has always been the inspiration I need for my own work!”
Dick and Sonny had talked about making another film many times over the years but life always seemed to get in the way until, in 2009, Gugulethu okaMseleku became Dick’s producer and brought new energy and conviction to the project.
“I grew up in a jazz household hearing, and hearing about, the great Sonny Rollins. So I was thrilled when Dick Fontaine told me he intended to make a new film with him. My uncle, Bheki Mseleku and my mum, who were both great musicians, would be very proud. I feel very privileged to have worked on this project,” says Gugulethu.
Beyond the Notes is the first film Dick Fontaine has directed for 15 years since he has been concentrating on guiding and inspiring, young documentary filmmakers at the National Film and Television School (UK), just as he himself has been inspired, especially by jazz musicians, having made some ten films with jazz along with his other work.
“Making films with music is my therapy. There is a unique connection between improvised music and improvised filmmaking. It really helps, as they say, in keeping it real!”
Jazz lover Anthony Wall of the BBC arts strand Arena, who, somewhat miraculously in the present climate, commissioned the television version of Beyond the Notes, says, “Arena prides itself in helping the most interesting filmmakers make films about the most interesting artists.”
Sonny Rollins - Beyond the Notes will be shown at the Woodstock Film Festival on October 2, 2013. Both Sonny and filmmaker Dick Fontaine will be present for a Q&A session after the film.