MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Historically, tennis has been a gentleman’s game, and there’s arguably no player who better personifies this philosophy than Arthur Ashe. Embodying this same spirit is a feature-length documentary about the late athlete and activist which, while fascinating and well-told, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Born in the former capital of the Confederacy and raised in the shadow of segregation, Ashe overcame socio-economic disadvantage to achieve a bold ambition he set himself in his youth: doing for tennis what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. On the court, he devoured opponents with an icy elegance and disarming modesty; off it, he was a polite yet passionate advocate for civil rights the world over. His relentlessness continued well into retirement, using his name and voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS – a disease which he himself contracted, with fatal consequences.

It’s quite fitting that Citizen Ashe (2021) should be screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Our city is, of course, home to the Australian Open, the Asia-Pacific’s premier tennis tournament; but it’s also the place where Ashe obtained his last ever Grand Slam title, winning the Men’s Doubles competition with Aussie player Tony Roche in January 1977. Additionally, its showing continues the Festival’s affinity with politically-minded sports documentaries, with previous examples including The Witches of the Orient (2021) and The Australian Dream (2019). That’s right – this is no mere tennis story.

Ashe’s sporting achievements have since been overshadowed by the likes of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, so it’s not surprising that directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard have opted for a greater focus on the politics and social issues that shaped the athlete’s mindset. Insights are provided by the likes of Johnnie Ashe, who discusses his older brother’s upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama and his military service; and Harry Edwards, a former Black Panther who reflects on the tennis star’s passive approach to racism.

What’s most intriguing, and impressive, about Citizen Ashe is how Miller and Pollard tell their story. Fresh interviews with Edwards, Johnnie Ashe and others are woven together with archival video, and audio, of its subject appearing on current affairs programs and chat shows, all of which is expertly edited – to the point where the film negates the need for a dedicated narrator. At times, it’s almost as though Arthur Ashe is speaking directly to the viewer, his soundbites seemingly uttered with this very documentary in mind. And the ingenuity of the screenplay doesn’t end there.

Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Johnnie is one of the talking heads in Citizen Ashe

Every good tale needs an adversary, and Ashe has one in Jimmy Connors. Having emerged on the tennis scene just as Ashe was reaching his peak, Connors appears to be everything that his counterpart isn’t, a man who’s strong, brash and loud – he’s widely recognised as one of the first “grunters” in the sport. Connors’ game-changing techniques contrast with the more traditional, tactical approach of his rival, making him the Connors is the James Hunt to Ashe’s Niki Lauda, or the John McEnroe to the other’s Bjorn Borg. So intriguing is this rivalry that it could be a fascinating movie or mini-series on its own.

The same could be said for the rest of the documentary, for that matter. Every aspect of Ashe’s extraordinary life – whether it be his childhood, his studies in California, his military service, his visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, his coaching of the American Davis Cup team, his relationship with John McEnroe, his marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy, or his AIDS diagnosis – is worthy of the feature-length treatment. But instead, Citizen Ashe condenses it all into a 95-minute runtime. While this is a commendable feat, the film needs at least another half-hour to thoroughly study its namesake, and reflect upon his legacy.

As a result of its abbreviated duration, the tone of Citizen Ashe is somewhat remote. His many achievements and milestones are made to feel more like footnotes, never reaching the cathartic highs of other documentaries about the African-American experience, such as Summer of Soul (2021). And in being so emotionally distant, the picture never becomes the profound, moving tale that it ought to be, nor does the viewer feel compelled to emulate its central figure and become a better person – as was the case in The Australian Dream.

Much like the man himself, Citizen Ashe refrains from melodrama, telling its narrative with poise and intelligence. The documentary falters as a tribute to the professional athlete, for it is overly clinical in its delivery, though it does serve some purpose as a neat introduction to those who are unfamiliar with all that Arthur Ashe accomplished in his remarkable, all-too-short life.

Citizen Ashe is streaming on MIFF Play until Sunday, August 28.

MIFF 22: Rewind & Play is a Must-See for Jazz Fans

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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.

Thelonious Monk in Rewind & Play. Screening provided by Andolfi Productions

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.

Rewind & Play will be in select theatres from August 17th to 21st and on MIFF Play from August 12th.