Ornette: Made in America (1984): Shirley Clarke’s Last Film

This original and informative documentary, directed and edited by Shirley Clarke, centers on the acclaimed saxophonist and free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman.

The film does not chronicle the life of Coleman but rather emulates his freeform style by mixing together excerpts from performances, interviews, experimental music videos, and reenactments of Coleman’s childhood.

Employing her intrusive, fast-cutting editing style, the 77-minute film intercuts interviews, archive footage and psychedelic sequences around Coleman’s performance of Skies of America with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at the Convention Center.

Shot by Edward Lachman, a quinessential cinematographer of contemporary indie cinema (he has shot several of Todd Haynes films), the docu includs interviews with and original footage of William S. Burroughs, Buckminster Fuller, Ed Blackwell, Robert Palmer, George Russell,  John Rockwell, Don Cherry, and Denardo Coleman.

The opening of the Caravan of Dreams nightclub serves as a catalyst for making the film. Clarke had been working on the documentary for two decades.  In fact, the 1968 footage with Ornette, his young son Denardo, and frequent collaborator Charlie Haden, was initially shot by Clarke for a separate film.

Ornette was the last film of Shirley Clarke, the pioneering director who is still better known for her landmark 1967 documentary, Portrait of Jason.

In 2012, the estimable Milestone Films rereleased Ornette in select theaters and later distributed the restored film on DVD and Blu-ray.