Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Alan Hicks.
One of the cinematic highlights of 2014 was the drama Whiplash, about the turbulent relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer and his volatile teacher who pushed his students to breaking point, and sometimes beyond. The marvelous documentary Keep On Keepin’ On offers a marked contrast to that film, as it follows the wonderful friendship that develops between two jazz musicians – one a legend nearing the end of an eventful life and the other a jazz prodigy just starting out on his musical career.
The beating heart of the film is 94-year old Clark Terry, a Grammy award winning jazz trumpeter who has worked with the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and he acted as a mentor to rising young musicians Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. One of eleven kids and born into poverty and a hard scrabble life during the depression, Clark feels an obligation to give something back, mainly through teaching at New York’s Rutgers University and passing on his love of jazz and his wisdom to a new generation of up and coming young musicians. Which was how he first met 23-year old Justin Kauflin, a skinny young kid and aspiring jazz pianist who has been blind since he was eleven. When he lost his sight, Justin turned to music as a way of coping.
Clark encourages Justin as he prepares for the prestigious Thelonius Monk jazz competition and helps him try to overcome his stage fright. And when Clark is hospitalised due to serious complications from his longtime diabetes, Justin often travels down to Atlanta to visit him and help lift his spirits as he continues to gain inspiration from the bedridden old man. The pair connect over a unique form of musical language as they endlessly improvise riffs in the hospital ward, often until the wee hours of the morning. And when Clark introduces Justin to Quincy Jones during one visit the young man’s path is set.
Australian filmmaker Alan Hicks spent four years exploring the warm bond of friendship that developed between the seemingly indefatiguable Clark and Justin, a bond forged out of a mutual respect for each other and their love of music. Hicks, who studied jazz under Clark in the early 2000s and toured with his band for a period, has been granted a wonderful level of access to their lives. He also explores their various highs and lows and bouts of despair as they face adversity and setbacks. It is sometimes difficult to watch the once vital Clark struggle with ill health, having trouble breathing and moving around. But Hicks maintains a delicate balance between the downbeat and the positive uplifting moments the pair share.
Keep On Keepin’ On is the first film for former jazz musician turned Hicks, and something of a labour of love. He has crafted an intimate and sympathetic portrait of the strong friendship between the two men. And it helps that Clark has such a rich and fascinating history and there are plenty of wonderful anecdotes told in dry and unaffected style. Justin also has an endearing personality, despite his blindness and bouts of uncertainty. Both men seem willing to open up for the cameras, and there is obviously a deep level of trust between Hicks and his subjects here.
There are plenty of photographs that put Clark’s history into perspective, as well as some rare archival footage of concerts and live performances that are fascinating. There are also a number of interviews with the likes of Quincy Jones (himself one of the producers of the film and instrumental in helping Hicks complete it), Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, and Clark’s devoted wife Gwen, that add colour and texture to this poignant documentary.
Keep On Keepin’ On is a moving, compassionate, warm, uplifting, inspiring and beautifully made documentary that holds broad appeal for audiences, even those who are not particularly interested in jazz music.