Lee Morgan’s Jazz Tragedy, Beautifully Rendered

Artistic, obsessive and intoxicating, “I Called Him Morgan” is a documentary with a creative soul, and that makes all the difference.

It’s not just that it’s a haunting and deeply moving jazz tragedy, dealing with the life and untimely death in 1972 of legendary trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot at age 33 by his wife. indeed, Helen, with the gun he gave her.

It’s also how Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin – a one-man band that wrote, directed, produced and co-edited – told this harrowing story. Using a dazzling mix of film, sound and visual tools, Collin recreates both individual lives and an entire world.

Like a reclaimed and illuminated slice of time, “I Called Him Morgan” has few peers.

Given Morgan’s status as one of the great bebop trumpeters, expect the film’s soundtrack, featuring cool and punchy spectacular cuts from dozens of his albums, to set an impeccable tone.

But Collin, a prodigious researcher who has been working on this film for years (several of which spent editing), won’t rest until he’s secured interviews with the story’s key players, friends, family. and bandmates like Wayne Shorter, who was so reluctant to revisit the past that it took four years to convince him to speak up.

The film’s centerpiece interview is a unique and gripping account that Helen Morgan herself recorded on a tape recorder a month before her death. Speaking to writer and teacher Larry Reni Thomas, she details her difficult life, her relationship with Morgan and how and why she came to shoot him at a Manhattan jazz club named Slugs in the midst of such a terrible blizzard. that he delayed ambulances, contributing to her husband’s death.

What makes “Morgan” such an exceptional film is that Collin, with a combination of good fortune and great skill, built on this excellent verbal foundation with striking visuals that set a powerful mood.

Although he was unaware of the extent of the material when he began working, Collin made excellent use of thousands of black-and-white still images taken by Francis Wolff, the co-founder of jazz stalwart Blue Note Records with Alfred Lion (the musicians called them “the animal brothers”.)

Equally compelling is newly created film material by Collin and wizarding cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival,” “Selma”). The director, who doesn’t like recreations, instead opted for 16mm film manipulated to look like clips from home movies. The results, especially in footage shot during a pair of winter blizzards in New York City, are evocative.

None of this would matter so much without a great story to tell, and Collin, who came across Morgan through a random YouTube clip, shrewdly decided to go back and forth between the two main ones so let him tell their stories.

The film begins with Helen Morgan and her strange memories from beyond the grave of a particularly difficult life. Growing up in rural North Carolina, with two out-of-wedlock children at the age of 14 (“it disappointed me in a lot of things”), she left her brood behind and found herself in New York . With a striking, no-nonsense street manner, Helen unashamedly describes herself as “sharp, which was what you had to be. I watched over me.

Lee Morgan, on the other hand, initially led the enchanted life of a musical prodigy. Hired by Dizzy Gillespie when he was only 18, he surprised his comrades. “He was confident to the point of being arrogant. He knew he had talent,” recalled bassist Paul West, with drummer Charli Persip, adding, “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind Lee was going to be a star.

Although he enjoyed more success with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Morgan also succumbed to the drug culture that surrounded music. He became addicted to heroin, once showing up barefoot for a concert at Birdland because he had sold his shoes to pay for drugs.

Although Helen Morgan was 14 years older than Lee when they met in 1967, the connection was immediate. “My heart went out to him,” she says movingly on the tape, and she began to turn her life around, seeing him rehab, manage his career, even carry his trumpet to concerts. “His life was restored by Helen,” a friend says, and Al Harrison, his son from the start of his life, simply says, “They needed each other.”

How and why their relationship fell apart is a story best left to the film itself, and Collin, a jazz enthusiast whose previous work was 2006’s “My Name Is Albert Ayler,” is perfectly placed to tell. tell it.

Whether or not you are interested in jazz, the poetry of Collin’s cinema and the poignant story of the couple will seduce you. As a piece of history and a personal journey, “I Called Him Morgan” is cinema to be cherished.

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No MPAA rating. Operating time; 1h31. Play Monica de Laemmle, Santa Monica, Playhouse, Pasadena.

Critic’s choice. “I called him Morgan.” Artistic, obsessive and intoxicating, this documentary about the tragic story of jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan has a creative soul, and that makes all the difference. Whether you like jazz or not, the poetry of the production and the poignancy of the story will seduce you. —Kenneth Turan

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran