In one week, audiences in major American cities will finally get a chance to lay eyes on this year’s big Sundance winner, Whiplash. The film, which chronicles a uniquely intense teacher-student relationship, dares to suggest that negative reinforcement may be the best way to inspire greatness, especially in a budding jazz musician. This week, however, another movie indirectly begs to differ—and it has the anecdotal evidence to support its claim. The documentary Keep On Keepin’ On catches up with jazz legend Clark Terry, a trumpeter who played in the bands of both Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Now in his 90s, Terry has spent a good half of his life boosting the careers of young musicians, among them Quincy Jones (who produced the movie). One of his most recent discoveries is a blind, twentysomething piano prodigy named Justin Kauflin. Though separated by several decades of life experience, the two men are fast friends, and one can see in their easygoing relationship a key to Terry’s mentorship: He is endlessly supportive, reasoning that his legacy lends his words of encouragement real weight. (If Clark Terry believes in you, you’re probably doing something right.)
Shot over a period of five years, Keep On Keepin’ On tracks the slow but steady rise of Kauflin’s career, and it’s genuinely nice to see a man of Terry’s stature put his faith in an artist of a younger generation, their bond strengthened by a shared love of music. Niceness, however, is chiefly what the movie has going for it. The director, Alan Hicks, is one of Terry’s many former protégés; their relationship, probably not radically different from the one between Terry and Kauflin, colors the filmmaker’s artistic choices and opportunities. Hicks gains complete access to the luminary, allowing viewers a candid glimpse into the life of a great. But the intimacy between director and subject also results in a film that’s more hagiography than probing examination. Through testimonials from peers and admirers, and a smoothly edited archival overview, Hicks captures the significance of Terry’s career without managing much of a perspective on it. The closest the film comes to a thesis is its vision of jazz as a chain of influences, one player handing the torch off to another, the spark of inspiration passed forward like a baton. Terry, as the film makes clear, passed a lot of batons.
In its second half, Keep On Keepin’ On turns its attention to Terry’s medical troubles, watching as he suffers from complications related to his diabetes. As in Life Itself, there’s uncomfortable poignancy in seeing a living legend battling for his life and receiving well wishes from the various artists whose careers he made. There’s also something a touch unsettling about the way the film keeps leaping forward several months, each new date card carrying the threat of bad news. Terry makes it, blessedly, and there’s a happy ending for his young counterpart, who gets the kind of opportunity musicians his age can usually only dream about. (A cynic might wonder if Jones, who has a hand in the young man’s good fortune, saw an opportunity to end the film on a note of uplift.) It’s possible to be touched and even inspired by Keep On Keepin’ On while still wishing that the movie had devoted a little more focus to the creative process—to the actual act of making/playing music and perfecting a craft. Thankfully, there’s a movie to scratch that itch too, and it opens next Friday.