November 16, 2010

A Look at Mingus the Composer

Charles Mingus: Triumph of the UnderdogCharles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog (1997) is a fascinating look at the life and legacy of bassist Charles Mingus. It combines concert footage, interviews with fellow musicians and family, and bits of a noirish documentary of Mingus made in the late 1960s. It was directed by Don McGlynn and co-produced by the composer’s widow, Sue Mingus.
     The film is hardly a complete portrait, however. It barely touches on Mingus’s troubled early life. For his own take on this - growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles as a mixed-race child whose mother died when he was very young and whose father was abusive - I recommend his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, which is told partly in stream-of-consciousness quotations and partly in a curious, disembodied third-person point of view. The fractured perspective is disconcerting, but one gets the feeling throughout that Mingus, rather than falling apart, is putting the pieces of his life together. Unfortunately, insights into his musical thinking are few and far between. While one must certainly view his sexual braggadocio in the book with a prophylactic skepticism, Mingus emerges as an intelligent and sympathetic character, someone who had to overcome a great deal to become a great musician.
     In many ways, the film picks up where the book left off. The point it attempts to make is that Mingus should be ranked among the great American composers, and the evidence it presents is pretty convincing. Throughout his career, Mingus had an amazing ability to incorporate ideas and musical influences (classical included) into his own complex tunes. The concert/television footage in the film, from the 1950s to the 1970s, provides tantalizing glimpses, although one wishes that more extensive cuts had been used. None of his songs are heard in totality. Interviewees include his wives Sue and Celia Mingus, musicologist Gunther Schuller, and musicians John Handy, Eddie Bert, Wynton Marsalis, and Randy Brecker.
     His difficult personality is also on display. Mingus was a volatile personality, who could be extremely articulate on almost any topic, a lover and sentimentalist, or a raging and angry man. In one scene, we see him being literally run out of his New York City apartment in the mid 1960s and taken away in a police cruiser. There are also snippets of a documentary (made in 1968 by Thomas Reichman) in which the camera follows Mingus from behind (a la Samuel Beckett’s Film), and he appears as an ominous and shadowy figure wandering down trash-filled streets in the dark of night. I’m not sure what the point of this was, although I have to admit it was evocative.
     Finally, at the end of the film, Mingus’s music gets a little airing out with extended excerpts from “Epitaph,” his posthumous magnum opus. This two-hour orchestral piece was discovered after Mingus’s death from ALS in 1979 and first performed in 1989.
     Although somewhat scattered in its approach to Mingus (who was scattered himself), Triumph of the Underdog is definitely worth viewing for its insights into this troubled genius.

See also: Charles Mingus - "So Long, Eric" (1964) 

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