SIFF Film Review – Keep On Keepin’ On
Keep On Keepin' On
There have been a number of good musical documentaries in the last few years. Alan Hicks’ Keep On Keepin’ On (2014) is one of the best, because it’s about something more than just the music. It’s about love, life, and the passage of time. We have two individuals, one near the end of their life and the other just starting their own, coming together through their talent. Unlike other documentaries about musicians – where forgotten artists find late appreciation for their work – this is shown in a much more personal fashion. It’s just as much about their relationship as it is their music. Two people who couldn’t have come from further places in the world, bonding together in a mutual friendship.
We first learn the story of Clark Terry, one of the most prolific and legendary jazz musicians in American history. Specializing in trumpet, Terry worked his way from very poor beginnings (he made his first trumpet out of spare junk parts) to become one of the prominent figures in early jazz. I am not a music aficionado, but when it comes to jazz, I am well aware of who Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were and what they meant to the genre. We learn that Terry, utilizing his skills, played in Duke Ellington’s band, and that Miles Davis sought him out as a teacher. Quincy Jones, one of the most successful music producers in history, was Terry’s first student. Terry even left Duke Ellington’s band to play with Quincy Jones. Some of the most humorous anecdotes have Terry describing Jones as a “skinny kid,” and when Jones pays him a visit, Terry asks him if his lips are “still greasy.”
The other half of this story tells of Justin Kauflin, a twenty three year old musical prodigy, and Terry’s latest student. Kauflin is just like any other person his age: young, a bit shy, etc. But what makes him stand out is his incredible talent on piano, despite the fact he is completely blind. He developed his skills under the guidance of Terry, and through their interactions, the two grew close. When he’s not trying to find work or practicing for competitions, Kauflin visits Terry in Arkansas to practice and refine his music. Watching Kauflin learn from Terry is like seeing two masters bouncing off one another. Terry instructs Kauflin not by naming notes, but singing out the rhythm (“dab a diddy, dab a dibby, dab a dibby”). And without skipping a beat, Kauflin mimics it on the keys like second nature.
But Hicks’ film isn’t just about an old master helping a young prodigy. It’s also about two people connecting by hardship and struggle. We have an old black man (Terry was 89 when shooting started and 93 when it was completed) and a half Asian/half Caucasian kid seemingly fitting each other’s lives in synchronicity. Terry’s health has been deteriorating, ravaged by the effects of diabetes. He’s lost his sight as well, along with the use of his legs. Some of the harder scenes show Terry nearly succumbing to the overwhelming obstacles of his health. There are two reasons for him to continue: the undying love of his wife Gwen (her persistence and strength during their scenes is moving), and the hope to see Kauflin reach his full potential. The very first scene shows Terry finishing a lesson, and expressing his fears about pulling out of his latest troubles. Kauflin takes the role of supporter, keeping his optimism for Terry, even when things look to be heading for the worst.
Music does have some kind of mysterious healing quality, as though it can reach in and rejuvenate the soul. Hicks does a good job of capturing this between Kauflin and Terry. He does not intrude with his camera or in the editing; the music alone allows the characters to develop naturally. See how Terry’s entire aura picks up around Kauflin, and how his mind is just as musically sharp as ever before. When Terry mumbles a tune, we aren’t sure what he’s trying to get across. But when Hicks juxtaposes that with the specific song, we notice Terry was humming in perfect beat and in the right key. Terry and Kauflin’s sessions go on for hours (particularly when Kauflin has been chosen to participate in a high profile competition). One of the nicer touches Hicks includes has Terry routinely asking what time it is, with Kauflin mentioning that it’s very late in the morning. They’re so deep into the work they lose track of the time.
I don’t know if Clark Terry, his family, or Justin Kauflin would admit to it, but I’m sure music has played a significant role in Terry living as long as he has. It’s as though he is sticking around in order to pass his extraordinary knowledge on to others. And that’s really what Keep On Keepin’ On is all about, taking the past to inform the present and enrich the future.