"You can't describe music with words," the great Sonny Rollins observes in John Scheinfeld's survey-course-brisk docu-dip into the art and life of John Coltrane. As if seeking to prove Rollins right, Scheinfeld's interviewees hold themselves to generalities: "His sound is stunning," observes appreciator-in-chief Bill Clinton, who adds, unilluminatingly, that it "ranges through the different emotions that people have in a way that very few people can do." Carlos Santana tells us that he burns incense and plays A Love Supreme to cleanse the spirits out of hotel rooms. Common marvels that Coltrane told "stories" through his music "without even words" and points out that we all have our ups and downs. It's 44 minutes into the film before someone (Ravi Coltrane, the musician's musician son) discusses the tone of Coltrane's saxophone; Wayne Shorter, a sax titan himself, then links Coltrane's wailing to the pulpit performances of the preacher father who died when Coltrane was 12. It's hard not to wish, as Scheinfeld's restless film hustles along to touch its next base, that we could just sit and listen to more from Shorter, who actually has insight to share. Lord knows the movie won't make time to let us hear some John Coltrane.
This is another of those jazz docs that consistently layers the music beneath the commentary of its talking heads, only occasionally letting anything but the opening theme of a piece play without Cornel West or Wynton Marsalis telling us that, yes, the music we're not quite hearing is important. Denzel Washington occasionally speaks the words of Coltrane himself, but the whole is a blur, a Microsoft Encarta entry run blandly amok.