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LAFF Review: 'Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story' is a Well-Meaning but Tepid Look at the Life of a Jazz Legend

Photo of Jai Tiggett By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act June 20, 2014 at 6:38PM

Highly respected by musicians and fans of the bebop genre, his life and career were stifled by the 30 years he spent cycling in and out of San Quentin prison.
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Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story

"Sound of Redemption" tells the story of a lesser-known name in the canon of influential jazz musicians, gifted saxophone player Frank Morgan. Highly respected by musicians and fans of the bebop genre, his life and career were stifled by the 30 years he spent cycling in and out of San Quentin prison. The film had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, accompanied by a musical tribute to Morgan at the Grammy Museum.

N.C. Heikin, director of the 2009 North Korean refugee documentary "Kimjongilia," looks to weave an inspiring tale out of Morgan's turbulent life and eventual comeback, but what results is a story not much different from those of the scores of other artists who struggle to overcome the lure of drugs and crime.

The film is bookended by a tribute concert being held at San Quentin after Morgan's death. As proteges and admirers play his music and read excerpts from his life story to an attentive crowd of prisoners, the scene turns to still photos, archival footage and talking head interviews with Morgan's family, fellow musicians and friends.

They paint a picture of a child musical prodigy with a troubled family life who, by the time he reaches his teens in the late 1940s, has become skilled enough to play alongside professional musicians, sitting in on jam sessions and competing in contests. His talent puts him in the presence of such luminaries as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, whom he considers a major influence. But early on he also develops a heroin habit that halts his career as he sinks into a life of addiction and crime.

Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story

In addition to the smooth jazz soundtrack throughout, the highlights here are the anecdotes shared by Morgan's loved ones, whose enthusiasm for his music and personality are obvious. When Morgan's manager details a few of his money-making schemes to support his drug habit, we get a glimpse into Morgan's creative genius as well as his street smarts.

Maybe it's because stories like this have been told so many times, with the same beats of tragedy and triumph, that "Redemption" isn't able to reach its full impact. The tale of the brilliant-but-troubled artist, complete with family issues, drug-fueled exploits and a touch of racism along the way to an ultimate comeback, has become an all-too-familiar trope in both narrative and documentary films. And while this film explores a true story, that story is told in such a traditional and typical style that it doesn't distinguish itself much from all those other tales.

There's also the fact that Morgan himself is only accessible in archival interviews; towards the end of his life as he resumes a recording career post-prison but is still haunted by his own demons, there's ambiguity as we aren't able to get inside his head to uncover the biggest mysteries of his life. As the title indicates, the film suggests that Morgan's music outweighs all unanswered questions, yet it still doesn't make for a fully satisfying climax. It opts for easy answers – "music cures all" – and doesn't seem to delve as deeply into Morgan's story, or the issues surrounding it, as it might.

Ultimately, "Sound of Redemption" honors the life of a noted musician, but doesn't quite make the same impact as its subject or the music he left behind.  

Distribution plans haven't been announced as yet.

This article is related to: Documentary, Reviews, L.A. Film Fest, Festivals


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