Thursday, August 9, 2007

An Account of His Disappearance

(Kristian St. Clair, US, 2006, 71 mins.)


He was an overdose of style.
-- Guitarist Joe Beck


First things first. I know filmmaker Kristian St. Clair. I don't know him from
his directing, but because I briefly worked in the same department at Amazon
(DVD and Video) and, for a year or so, we belonged to the same book club.
That doesn't mean I know him well, but full disclosure merits a mention.

Further, I've always admired his taste in books, music, and film (like me, he has a thing for 1960s-era Michael Caine). Back in the day, I knew he was working on a documentary, but I didn't know whether or not it would ever see the light of day.

When you work full-time, it's tough to complete a feature-let alone start one in the first place-but that's exactly what St. Clair has done, and This Is Gary McFarland premiered in Seattle, as a work"n-progress, at 2005's Earshot Jazz Festival. Then,
it had its official launch at last year's SIFF (it's played other festivals since). Unfortunately, I missed both screenings, so St. Clair offered to send me a copy.

This is Kristian St. Clair
Back in 2000, when I found out he was working on this film, I can't say I was all
that familiar with his subject (at first, I thought he was referring to pianist Marian McPartland). If I didn't know anything about jazz, that might not seem significant, but I hosted KCMU's "Straight No Chaser" in the early-1990s. That said, I'm no expert, just a fan of the form, so I guess it isn't completely surprising that I wasn't intimately acquainted with vibraharpist/composer Gary McFarland (1933-1971), but
I figured if St. Clair was into the guy, he must've been a pretty interesting figure.
After watching This Is Gary McFarland, I'd have to agree that he was. This is a
lively effort, filled with useful information, and swinging sounds that could appeal
as much to general music lovers as to jazz aficionados. And that's the point, really. McFarland started out as a jazz musician, but later pursued a passion for pop,
hence St. Clair's tagline, "The jazz legend who should have been a pop star."
Just as tenor saxaphone player Stan Getz crossed over to the pop crowd with
1963's Getz/Gilberto, which spawned the classic "Girl from Ipanema," McFarland followed suit with 1964's Soft Samba, an easy listening affair that outraged the
jazz community. Fortunately, many forgave him when they realized he wasn't
trading one genre for another, and he continued to work in both idioms.
McFarland also had a certain savoir faire that impressed men and women alike.
(He married in 1963, and the wedding video reveals a rather...lustful couple.)
In photographs, he recalls RFK Jr. with a snappier dress sense-dig those mohair sweaters! And subjects attest to his charm and good humor. Nice guys, however, don't always make for the best cinematic subjects. McFarland didn't have a mean streak, but he does appear to have had a dark side. His wife mentions a history
of alcoholism, but this line of inquiry isn't explored in much depth. In any case,
he liked to drink, but that wasn't unusual for a jazz musician in the 1960s.
Nonetheless, McFarland didn't drink himself to death. Nor did he take his own
life. Instead, someone laced his drink with liquid methadone, and he suffered
a fatal heart attack. No one knows whether he was murdered or whether he was
the victim of a prank gone horribly wrong, although all agree that the methadone originated with Terry Southern associate Mason Hoffenberg (Candy), who was in
the same Greenwich Village bar that night. I recall that when he was part of our
book club, St. Clair recommended Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye and
James Ellroy's Black Dahlia. Suffice to say, the man can appreciate a good mystery, but-as with the death of Elizabeth Short-this one will probably remain unsolved.
On the whole, I like the way St. Clair keeps things humming along in the film-
and McFarland liked to hum on his bossa nova"nspired recordings, so that seems particularly apt-but I still would've liked more. By that, I mean more information, more stuff. I wish he could've dug deeper, but I suspect he went as far as he could.
Consequently, the documentary feels more like an introduction than a definitive biography, although that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Beforehand, I didn't know much about Gary McFarland. Now I do. I just don't feel like I understand what made him tick, although that can be difficult to pull off when your subject has been dead for over 35 years, and didn't leave behind a wealth of autobiographical material.
As an introduction, however, it serves its purpose, and serves it well. If St. Clair hadn't made this film, it might never have gotten made. Furthermore, when a director digs too deep, viewers can be left with little to discover on their own.
Instead, This Is Gary McFarland offers a primer for interested parties to go out and do some sleuthing of their own-to track down the records he made, to watch the films he scored, etc. They aren't all easy to find, but the musician wasn't a Nick Drake-type figure. He didn't produce only a handful of albums before his passing.
McFarland left his mark on scores of recordings by Gerry Mulligan, Anita O'Day, and other notables, let alone his own wide-ranging catalog, and the very existence of this film can only bring more attention to his efforts. For a first feature, it's remarkably accomplished, and I hope St. Clair gets the opportunity to make many more.
For more information, please visit the official website. To download MP3s, see
this section. The site also features record reviews and all of the pictures above (plus others). This is Gary McFarland isn't currently available on DVD, and no screenings are scheduled at present, but I'll update this post as soon as that changes.

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