Taking place at the conclusion of Jazz titan Thelonious Monk’s European tour in 1969 on the French TV show Jazz Portrait, Rewind and Play (2022) gives us a window into how he was treated by even those that believed they were celebrating his genius. French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis uncovered this footage while working on a fictional, mosaic film based on the legendary musician. This is the filmmaker’s first documentary feature and is a remarkably selfless act to show this footage of unflinching honesty to a broader audience.
Similar in style to Peter Jackson’s miracle of a Beatles documentary Get Back (2021), Rewind and Play gives us a window into one of Jazz’s biggest figures playing his instrument to what is ostensibly no audience. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Right at the beginning of the film, you are struck by Monk, hunched and dripping with sweat. His exhausted breathing slowly overwhelms the rest of the audio, drowning out the host. In a film with a strong restraint in editorialisation of footage, Gomis from the first minute of screen time shows that he wants us to feel the harsh lights and environment the legendary pianist finds himself in. Gomis, throughout the documentary, uses Monk’s words and, more importantly, his piano, to drown out the words of those around him.
As soon as the host Henri Renaud begins to interview Monk, the callous and horrible treatment we are soon to endure rears its ugly head. When asked about his first time in France, Monk immediately mentions how he was ossified, something the host doesn’t want to be included in the show, as “it’s not nice”. The statement is also used by Gomis in the film’s opening credits.
Monk, like many musicians, communicates through his instrument. The language barrier is larger than the English and French divide here. He is clearly uncomfortable discussing his life, especially in front of a piano that he would rather be playing. Renaud is constantly interjecting his own experiences with Monk throughout the show, while also lazily translating what the pianist is saying back into French, usually in service of himself. The lack of respect and even acknowledgement of Monk’s playing is beyond frustrating, something we see draped across his face constantly.
The sadness from the documentary comes from Monk’s constant civility, coupled with an inability, or lack of desire, to combat with the host and crew on this french late night show. This is not James Baldwin on the couch of a French talk show trading barbs, Monk can only talk his frustrations out on the Steinway in front of him.
The repetition and rigidness of the talk show format is such an antithesis to the early jazz style, which centred on free-flowing, emotive pieces that had no desire to be replicated. The power of the Blue Note jazz movement came from the spontaneous outbursts in creative musicality that can be shared with an audience.
To have one of Jazz’s preeminent figures reduced to essentially a hotel lobby pianist is truly heartbreaking. And it’s not like these tv producers have an issue with the musician. They clearly adore Monk’s music and place in modern Jazz, but they cannot help themselves with their stereotypical ideas about him.
Gomis ironically closes the film with a cross-cutting sequence of Monk playing as the host describes a story of seeing the musician in a Harlem club, playing during a knife fight. The host asked Monk after the club shut down “Thelonious, how come you had the nerve to go on playing?” To which Monk replied, “it was no big deal, there was no need to stop”. This quote perfectly encapsulates the legendary musician’s relationship with music and the chaos of the world around him, highlighting the host’s lack of understanding about the man he was dealing with, then and now.