Imaging Ornette on Film
Filmmaker Shirley Clarke's experimental approach to movie making matches up perfectly with jazz man Ornette Coleman's experimental approach to music making in this classic documentary profile and tribute film.
The project was initiated during the early 1980s in response to producer Kathelin Hoffman's wish to document the debut performance of Ornette Coleman's symphony, Skies of America, at the opening of Fort Worth's new Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center.
As Clarke and crew worked on the film, ORNETTE Made in America developed into an experimental foray into the previously untried amalgamation of different film stocks and video format into a film that could be released theatrically.
In the film's final cut, Clarke mixed new Super 16 mm footage shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman with archival footage she'd shot years she'd shot of Coleman 20 years earlier, along with video clips, and managed to incorporate them into one consistent and projectable 35 mm print. The process has become fairly commonplace, but was, at the time, extraordinary.
An Expression of Clarke's Experimental Style
The film is also experimental in structure and aesthetic. As director and editor, Clarke presents a finished work that feels as improvisational and, at times, as cacophonous as Ornette Coleman's controversial music.
Reenactments of Coleman as an impoverished youngster and teenager underscore sequences showing Coleman himself interacting with his son, Denardo, at various stages of their parent to child relationship and father to son mentorship.
The film's biographical elements are interwoven with performance clips from the documentation of the Caravan of Dreams opening and various other jazz venues and with interviews in which Coleman articulates his heady and fascinating personal philosophy and theories about music and creativity.
Clarke uses animation and special effects to heighten the visualization of Coleman's music and mind set and cinematographer Lachman's shooting style, framing and sensibility are painterly. So, the film is visually thrilling.
An Audio Adventure
Instead of writing a voice of God narrative to tie all of these disparate images together, Clarke uses only Coleman's sprawling clash fest of a score of Skies of America as the film's singular audio through line. When Coleman, Denardo or the film's other characters are not talking to the camera or to each other, Coleman's music is used to carry the images, and sometimes to comment on or provide counterpoint to them.
The result is a densely impressionistic work of art. Watching ORNETTE Made in America is a unique experience. Frankly, it is a demanding film, one that can be hard to follow at first viewing. But it is a film that you can and should watch time and time again, and you can expect to discover new images and new meanings in it each time you watch it.
A New Look At Ornette
This classic experimental documentary was in danger of being lost. The prints were faded and worn. This much-needed restoration gives ORNETTE Made in America the new lease on life that it deserves.
Completely color corrected, it is again vibrant, and viewable as Clarke, who was meticulously specific in her work, intended it to be seen. The restoration of ORNETTE Made In America marks the second phase in Milestone Films' ongoing Shirley Project, which aims to restore the complete catalog of Clarke's films. The first restoration was of Clarke's The Connection, based on the theater production of Jack Gelber's eponymous drama.
Both The Connection and ORNETTE Made in America exemplify Clarke's signature experimental style of filmmaking. It's great to have them back in circulation, as they were intended to be seen.
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- Title: ORNETTE Made in America
- Director: Shirley Clarke
- U.S. Theatrical Release Date: 1986
- Theatrical Premiere of Restoration: August 31, 2012, IFC Center, NYC
- Running Time: 85 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Country: USA
- Filming Locations: Texas and Urbana, Illinois
- Language: English
- Production Company: Caravan of Dreams Productions
- Distribution Company: Milestone Films