November 9, 2017 – This documentary film tells the tragic story of an accalaimed jazz musician and the woman who brought life back into him, loved him and supported him and then was spurned by him. It is a story as old as humanity, and extremely tragic.
Not being a jazz fan, I had not heard of musician Lee Morgan (Edward Lee Morgan, born July 10, 1938, died February 19, 1972) but his music, heard throughout this film, is both electric and haunting. A jazz prodigy, he was already accomplished in his teens. He played with jazz legend John Coltrane on a recording when he was only 19.
His downfall came just as quickly after he became addicted to heroin. He dropped out of the music scene altogether, until a woman, Helen Moore (AKA Helen Morgan) took him in. Helen took care of him and became his common law wife. Under Helen's care, Lee improved to the point where he began playing again. Interviews with people who knew the couple say in the film that this relationship was good for both of them. Helen even acted as Lee's manager at times.
Lee eventually formed his own band. He was touring and recording. Things were looking good. But then Lee began seeing a younger woman, Judith Johnson, and he became increasingly distant from Helen. Not willing to play second fiddle to Judith, Helen proposed to move away from New York City, where they all lived, and said she might not ever return. Lee asked her to stay, and she did, but she said she knew this was a mistake.
Both Helen and Lee died years before this film was made, but Swedish director Kasper Collin effectively uses audio recordings from interviews conducted with them. An audio recording of Helen was made by disc jockey Larry Reni Thomas in February of 1996, after he happened to meet her in a music class he was teaching. Thomas, who appears in the film, explains that Helen's grandson (from a previous marriage) interrupts the interview. Thomas intended to finish the interview at a later date, but Helen died before that could be arranged.
The fatal shooting that ended Lee's life during a blizzard in New York City is detailed in heartbreaking fashion. Helen reportedly spent the last years of her life trying to atone for what she had done. Lee died by the very same gun he bought for Helen “for her protection;” as often happens. As soon as she shot him, she thought “I couldn't have did this. I couldn't have did this ... This must be a dream.” It was no dream. Even so, Lee might not have died, but even though the police came right away, it took the ambulance an hour to get there, perhaps because of the blizzard, perhaps not.
This is, like Tracy Chapman's song “Fast Car” a quintessential American story, full of promise, hope, heartbreak and racism. It reminded me a bit of the stories others like comedian Phil Hartman, Marvin Gaye and so many other people who have died by gun violence in America. It is a tragic and touching story, well told. This film rates a B.
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