Keep On Keepin’ On
Directed by Alan Hicks
Starring Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin
Eighty-nine year old trumpeting legend Clark Terry has mentored jazz wonders like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, but Terry’s most unlikely friendship is with Justin Kauflin, a 23-year-old blind piano player with uncanny talent, but debilitating nerves. As Justin prepares for the most pivotal moment in his budding career, Terry’s ailing health threatens to end his own.
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★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
It is a crying shame that it has taken this long for a cinematic look at the life of jazz legend Clark Terry. Despite never achieving the commercial solo acclaim that fellow players like Gillespie and Miles reached, he was one of the greatest trumpet players to ever pick up the horn and influenced countless others who mastered the instrument.
Alan Hicks film shows us Terry as a frail old man, suffering with health issues but even at the grand old age of 94, his passion and spirit refuses to be cowed by the passages of time. His mentoring of young blind pianist student Justin Kauflin is the focus of the film, rather than taking us stage by stage through the various parts of Terry's illustrious career. This is a man who has played on over 900 recordings so Kauflin has one of jazz's most respected and premier teachers on hand to guide him.
You can see that Terry is eager to pass the torch onto a fresh faced newcomer, spending hours together helping the young man with his dexterity on the ivory keys. The trumpet players welcoming warmth helps the film overcome its rather standard visual approach and the bond between the two men feels genuinely touching. Hicks clearly has huge respect for his subject and provides a particularly poignant moment midway as Kauflin visits Terry recovering in hospital. As his mind drifts away and reminisces on an old song, he begins to sing aloud as a gentle piano begins to play just underneath his vocals, crystallising the memory of a man who can never be separated from music, no matter what his state.
What we are really seeing here is how the communication of music exists fluently though age and time, across cultural boundaries and physical limitations. Teacher and pupil are like two peas in a pod once the notes start to stray into the air and their desperation to play and evoke their artistic range is wonderful to watch. Whiplash may have given us two jazz egomaniacs hell bent on destroying each other but here we have a duo who understand the power of collaboration and a teacher eager to pass on every single trick in the book.
★★★★ review by Matt on Letterboxd
Imagine if Whiplash had a wise, old black man play J.K. Simmons role and you get an idea of this documentary.
The life of Clark Terry is extraordinary and his relationship with Justin feels alittle staged and forced sometimes, they share some moments of genuine beauty together. It is amazing to see Terry through his early 90's still teaching but progressively getting worse. Still, the movie is about the power of Jazz music and how it connects people and I wish the film just had a little more emotional truth instead of just giving us an inspirational true story but maybe thats the pessimist in me.
★★★★½ review by Aaron on Letterboxd
True Confession: I wept through this entire movie. Tears of joy mostly. The love that spills off the screen through the entire 85 minutes is unbelievable. Musicians doing what they love. A wife caring for her ailing husband. A student-teacher relationship bonded by a passion for jazz and the music that's bursting to get out of them. Keep On Keepin' On hits all the right..err...notes.
It's a study of the great Clark Terry. 92-year old jazz trumpeter whose career led him to play with Count Basie and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He taught jazz legends, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. In this film Terry mentors musical students of jazz, asking nothing in return. Just that the torch of his talents get passed down to others.
The movie focuses on his relationship with Justin Kauflin, a 23 year old blind piano prodigy who visits a very sick CT (as he affectionately calls him) at his bedside. Working out riffs on the keyboard as his jazz jedi master coaches him through the notes and syncopations from his hospital bed. I couldn't turn off the tear ducts as I watched both teacher and student deal with their trials in music and life. Mostly because I'm so affected when I see people passionately doing what they were born to be doing.
My one issue came during the closing credits of the film. Quincy Jones's name is listed as producer. It calls into suspect 2 particular scenes in the film where Jones makes an appearance. I started to question the authenticity of the scenes, and if this movie was nothing but a publicity "stunt" to sell the recordings of Justin Kauflin who Quincy Jones is currently working with to produce his record. Fortunately, that question is disproved in the movies bonus features. We learn that Quincy Jones knew nothing of the project until his visit, which is captured in the film. And that him coming on as a producer is not only a chance to bring recognition to his mentor, but helped secure the licensing of the music that is used so prominently throughout the movie. Quincy legitimately fell in the love with Justin's talent (the moment also captured on film) leading him to produce the musician's first record.
There's so much to be gleaned from this documentary even if you aren't a lover of jazz music. Keep On Keepin' On would make a perfect double bill with this year's Oscar-nominated 'Whiplash'. Only the student-teacher relationship is a little more endearing. A Top 5 film of 2014 for me.
★★★★ review by Sam on Letterboxd
This aint no WHIPLASH. This is the real deal - a jazz legend who gave his life to teaching others to find their sound. Inspirational is only the half of it.
★★★★ review by Michael Casey on Letterboxd
KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON is a documentary following the stories of two men. The first is a teacher, a mentor and an inspiration: Clark Terry, one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. The second is Terry’s student, Justin Kauflin, a 23-year-old blind piano player on the verge of his big break.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., “a trumpet player’s town,” on December 14, 1920, Terry fashioned his first trumpet from scraps found at the local junkyard. But from those humble beginnings he went on to play with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and so on. To Quincy Jones, he was a teacher. To Miles Davis, he was an idol. To Dizzy Gillespie, he was “the happiest sound in jazz” and that sound was in high demand. Terry performed on more than 900 recordings with a who’s who of jazz greats, but that isn’t the legacy Terry is concerned with. For Terry, his greatest work is his students.
Alan Hicks, the director of the doc, was himself a student of Terry’s (Hicks is a drummer from Australia) and he claims responsibility for introducing Terry to Kauflin. Kauflin is a gifted pianist, but due to a rare degenerative disorder, Kauflin lost his sight at age 11. Although blessed on the ivories, Kauflin suffers from stage fright, which has held him back during crucial performances. Thankfully, he’s got Terry in his corner, and with Terry in your corner, everything is fine.
KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON is the first film from Hicks, and to make this labor of love, Hicks followed Terry and Kauflin around for five years. Compiling archive footage from Terry’s prolific career and adding animation to accompany Terry’s background adds to the film, but the most impressive footage comes from the intimate access Terry and Kauflin grant Hicks.
Hicks describes jazz as “improvisation within form,” and that is precisely what Hicks and his editor, Denver native Davis Coombe, come up with. KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON could have been a dull-as-dust story of two musicians, one on the way up and one on the way down, both meeting in the middle. Instead, Hicks and Coombe craft a documentary that tells the story of parallel lives, never mind the 70-year difference in their age.
KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON is a delight. It is a joyous, uplifting, tribute to one of the great American art forms, and it is filled to the brim with some of the best that music has to offer (Kauflin worked on the score with none other than jazz great and University of Colorado Boulder’s own, Dave Grusin). No one should miss it. After watching Keep On Keepin’ On, viewers will go to sleep knowing that somewhere in Arkansas, Terry and his students continue to run scales, late after midnight.
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