There’s a telling moment in “I Called Him Morgan,” Kasper Collins’ melancholy new jazz documentary currently making the festival rounds, where one of Lee Morgan’s former friends and bandmates is holding up an old black-and-white photo of the young trumpeter. It’s one of many such scenes in the doc, which makes extensive use of a treasure trove of candid stills shot by former Blue Note label executive Francis Wolff to tell the story of how the prodigiously gifted Morgan ended up being shot and killed by his wife Helen inside a New York jazz club in the winter of 1972.
But in this instance, legendary saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter is shaking his head as he recalls how some people can look at pictures of Morgan – considered by many to be one of the finest trumpeters of his generation – and not know who he is. And for those equally unfamiliar with Morgan, or who only know him because of the tragic end to his story, Collins’ new film will make for a worthwhile education.
Between shows like “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer,” true-crime documentaries are enjoying a resurgence, but “I Called Him Morgan” is more jazz history lesson than sordid crime saga, mostly because the true story here is far more sad than scandalous. Given the obvious creative limitations – namely, that both central protagonists are long gone, with Helen passing away in 1996 – Collins uses a mix of archival footage, old photos, and interviews with former friends of the couple to tell their heartbreaking story.
But maybe the most interesting aspect of “I Called Him Morgan” is the way it frames this narrative largely from Helen’s perspective. Thanks to a fateful interview Helen recorded with an old Continuing Ed teacher (a former jazz radio host himself) a month before her death, her voice and story comes through via an old cassette tape, played off a dusty boombox and accompanied by a tinny whistle. Collins focuses in on the tape’s spools unreeling as Helen talks, narrating her life story, and it’s a welcome stylistic touch in between the documentary’s more standard talking head moments. Collins attempts to understand Helen first and foremost – we hear stories about her childhood in North Carolina, for instance, whereas Lee doesn’t come into the picture until he’s already a teenage prodigy playing alongside Dizzy Gillespie in New York in the 1950s.
The couple didn’t get together until the late ‘60s, however, so for most of the film’s first half, “I Called Him Morgan” tells their stories in parallel, knowing full well they’re both going to come crashing together further down the line. But at the outset at least, theirs is a happy, inspiring love story; after heroin addiction put Morgan’s once-promising jazz career into a talespin, Helen helped yank him out of it. And the film doesn’t shy away from the unfortunate irony that she would help save Lee’s life, only to later end it that fateful night in February 1972. When the film finally gets there, nearly an hour and a half later, it’s an evening Helen remembers as feeling almost like “a dream” and Collins paints it as such, utilizing moody, 16mm recreations to recall a wintery 1970s New York.
Unfortunately, while we do get that touching first-hand account from Helen of a crime she clearly wishes she could take back, it’s Lee’s voice that comes up somewhat lacking in “I Called Him Morgan.” Whether it’s the scarcity of available audio and/or footage, the trumpeter and his internal processes stay something of an enigma. Instead, his story is told mostly through his music, which remains a steady presence throughout, from the snowy opening credits to the bitter end. Much like the film itself, it’s a welcome reminder that Morgan’s true legacy should be all the wonderful music he made, not the tragic way his final performance ended.
FilmRise has acquired worldwide distribution rights to “I Called Him Morgan” which made its world premiere at the 2016 Venice International Film Festival, and then screened at the Toronto, Telluride and New York film festivals. FilmRise has now set openings for the film – starting in New York on March 24 (at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center), followed by March 31 openings at Manhattan’s Metrograph Theater and Los Angeles’ Laemmle Monica, with a national expansion to follow.
Watch a clip from the film below: