Documentary, Film, Jazz, Music
Produced by Nubar Ghazarian, Tankstand Films, and Nigel Deans, Flying Fish Films
Reviewed by John Clare, February 1st, 2016
This is film is a sounding of someone’s life, a plumb or plimsol line through a not notably stable figure, within but sometimes wandering from the Melbourne jazz scene. The camera has returned to him over a period of 15 years. It is of course Simon Kent, whom I met some time ago in Melbourne. He was a seemingly calm and pleasant young man who played the trombone very well indeed. He is now rather closer to the expected middle of our years, but still on the youngish side, and still playing very well, on his own or within several bands, of friends and some relatives, at one point rather ominously presenting a song called Chapel of Insanity.
The ensemble music can be light and casually interactive, sometimes freely improvised with a contrapuntal element and sometimes joining in apparently pre-composed themes in unison or unison harmony. These ensembles run on or float most attractively. Sometimes a more intense and gritty feeling informs the louder surges. Sometimes it hints at chaos and aggression without reaching complete abandon. Some of my favourite musicians are here. A list will follow later.
At other times we see Simon playing alone most pleasingly – as always really. And at other times we see him smoking a cigarette on his own and expressing various regrets. For instance, failing to meet God’s expectations, or failing to meet the needs of his son, or failing to reach his musical potential. Or failing to convey any understanding of his musical ideals.
Philosophical arguments of sometimes irritating complexity are conducted with himself. It seems compulsive. One might feel the urge to shake him, but myself and friends could not stop watching. Surely the course for a religious man is to pray for assistance. Surely God – if one is there, and how would I know? – bears some responsibility. Surely the carpenter bears some responsibility for a botched job, not just the wood. And he often seems to see himself as a botched job. This is not one’s business, but it is hard not to proffer some advice, pointlessly through the screen.
Incidentally, we see the son at an early age. He seems cheerful, good-natured, humorous, and Simon seems to be a loving father. Nor does Simon’s playing ever seem to languish.
It is clear by now that Simon was or still is a heroin user, though he seems to be off it at the time of filming. . Also bi-polar or what we once called manic depressive. He recalls ecstatic highs. Of course the trouble here is that such highs draw a great deal on one’s physical and nervous resources and plunge you back into depression. Simon has also been in psychiatric hospital a number of times.
More happily we see and hear that Simon also plays the trumpet, very well indeed – sometimes blowing hard enough to produce raking bright brass tones and, geometrical and lyrical figures, percussive and on the edge of brassily shattering. Also playing softly enough to deploy round notes in satisfying intellectual and aesthetically pleasing patterns. At one point, however, Simon’s mother offers the information that reaching the status of musical prodigy quite early was part of his problem.
There is an intriguing passage in which Simon plays the trumpet in duet with guitarist Roy Voodt, who seems to be his brother. Both are deadpan and their eyes are deep and liquid as the glowing lines entwine between them. I now see it is not his brother, having received a list of names, but their features and manners are strangely similar.
At a certain point we are in a land of sliding night shadows, slithering and peaked as the musicians set out for a job. Familiar Melbourne scenes glide past in poor light and deliberately poor focus at times. This is clearly meant to indicate a certain uncertainty and precariousness. It works. We are in a car. Also recurring is a Melbourne backyard of almost fluorescent green, cleanly focused in contrast with the night shadows. It is attached to the house where Simon lives and Simon is sometimes seen playing the trombone out there.
This film at first looks as if it will be a trial. Not so. It is disturbing but brilliant. Everyone watching with me is engaged and sympathetic whether they are interested in jazz or not.
A brief note. My name appears in the end credits. I don’t mind that at all, but I had nothing to do with any aspect. I didn’t know what it was about until I received it. This is merely to point out that I had no predisposition or prejudice.