Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988): Zwerin’s Docu, Exec-Produced (and Funded) by Clint Eastwood

Directed by Charlotte Zwerin, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser is a documentary about the life of bebop pianist and composer, featuring 5 performances by Monk and his group, and posthumous interviews with friends and family.

After meeting in New York, director and cinematographer Christian Blackwood mentioned to producer Bruce Ricker that he and his brother have done some work on jazz, referring to a one-hour film special on Thelonious Monk that only aired once in Germany. After Ricker saw the footage, calling them “the Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz,” he suggested that they use the footage for a new documentary.

Ricker brought in Charlotte Zwerin , which led to four producers; Ricker, Zwerin, and the Blackwood brothers. While they planned to enlist Monk, he was not well, and his failing health led to his death of stroke on February 17, 1982. Blackwood shot funeral while Zwerin and Ricker planned to make a deal with the Monk estate. Monk’s death brought up complications, however, as there was no will and New York didn’t recognize common law marriages; Monk’s children eventually became the executors of the estate.

Before any deals could be made by Zwerin and Ricker, the rights to Monk’s life story was bought by “two young men, with a substantial chunk of money and no prior film experience”,[5] which delayed production of the film.

After other delays, Zwerin and Ricker struggled to raise enough money for one-hour TV program with limited post-TV distribution potential. Ricker eventually contacted Clint Eastwood to have his company, Malpaso, produce the film. Old footage from different network companies were used, along with footage from the Blackwood brothers’ previous work. New footage was also shot, like interviews with his son, Thelonious Monk Jr., tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, and family and friends of Monk.

Critical Status
In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Note:

TCM showed this docu on June 22, 2020, as part of its series, “Jazz in Film.”