Duke Ellington: Levi’s Docu of Great American Musician

Robert S. Levi’s “Duke Ellington ” is a loving but uncritical documentary of the great American musician, who for 50 years led big bands around the world and created more than 1,500 compositions.

Narrated by Julian Bond, docu chronicles the highs and lows of Ellington’s intriguing career: his reign at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club; leadership of renowned big bands; declining popularity with the rise of bebop; and comeback at the l956 Newport Jazz Festival which won him a Time cover story. Docu celebrates Ellington as the ultimate pro who never missed a performance, continuing to work to his l973 death, despite incurable cancer.

Levi paints a portrait of a genius that refused to be hindered or categorized by stereotypes, racial or musical. His eclectic work, untempered by formal training, changed the course of American music. Extending the form of jazz, the versatile and innovative composer was often ahead of his time.

Throughout his life, Ellington remained faithful only to his music. “Music is my mistress,” he said, “and she plays second fiddle to no one.” Indeed, the day after attending a White House reception in honor of his 70th birthday, Ellington was performing at a prom in an Oklahoma City gymnasium.

Docu uses illuminating, never before seen interviews with Ellington and rare performance footage of his famous orchestra. Among docu’s strong points is discussion of Ellington’s 28-year association with Billy Strayhorn, who composed and arranged some of his best recordings. And memorable recreation of Ellington’s first meeting with much adored Martin Luther King.

Ellington’s relationship with Irving Mills, his publisher and manager who took official credit–and 75 percent of the profits–also gets attention. Ellington never expressed bitterness towards Mills, but he was resentful. The partnership was strained, when Mills bought a less expensive casket for Ellington’s mother than he had requested. Nothing meant more to the musician than the approval of his mother; for two years after her death he didn’t write anything of significance.

The film dispels some myths about Ellington’s creativity; he wrote “Solitude” in 20 minutes. He charmingly explains that everybody assumed the bags under his eyes were from hard work, when in fact they came from fun–friends describe his as a ladies’ man.

Helmer/lenser Levi, who co-scripted with Geoffrey C. Ward, provides a systematic chronology of Ellington’s life and art. But docu lacks insight into the difficulties of being a celebrity in a segregated society, one whose music crossed over to white audiences. It doesn’t probe deep enough into Ellington’s attitude toward discrimination–the fact that he was refused service in Baltimore in l960 is mentioned in passing. Civil Rights activists criticized Ellington for not putting himself on the line. Docu stresses that Ellington was no crusader, but his philosophy of universality (“I am interested in the people, not my people”) somehow remains obscure.

Even so, Ellington’s exuberant personality and music, placed in an ever-changing political backdrop, make up for docu’s deficiencies. Composer’s creations (“Sophisticated Ladies,” “Prelude to a Kiss”) are well integrated into portrait, whose tech credits are top drawer, especially Ken Eluto’s editing.