Film Review – The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step

Interviews with and about jazz critic and civil rights activist, Nat Hentoff, offer some glimpses of his big moments in music and social justice issues in The Pleasures of Being Out of Step, but are lacking in making a compelling argument of why this is a figure worth making an entire film about. I will start with saying I was not aware of Nat Hentoff before seeing this movie, and so had no idea what I was in for. I knew he was a writer and a major critic for jazz music, a genre of music that has never left any real impact on me. These weaknesses are somewhat overcome when details about what this man has done, are revealed, but never make Hentoff a truly compelling subject.

Director David L. Lewis has a flow to his film that he sets up early, where he touches on one of Hentoff’s controversial social or political opinions by talking with Hentoff, family, friends, and other experts. Then he cuts back to something about Hentoff and jazz, as if to keep things less intense, again talking to family, friends, and other experts. This proved a way to keep the flow of the film steady, but was also limiting in really exploring Hentoff’s beliefs. Part of the problem is the reverence the director has for his subject;  while he allows contrary views to be spoken about Hentoff, so much of the film underplays events that it becomes hard to get involved.

Pleasure of Being Out of Step Movie Still 1

One example is when they mention his layoff from the Village Voice, in 2008. The way it is presented, it appears to be major moment for the film, and us, yet it never is made clear why this should be a big deal. We see him losing jobs before, and his history with the Village Voice is mentioned, but it never felt like it was so essential to defining the man. The way the incident is portrayed makes it appear to be a commentary on journalism losing its integrity, but there is not enough here to show why it matters. For a social liberal, he seemed to be unengaged by feminism and gay rights issues, and is also pro-life. These viewpoints caused some friends to stop interacting with him and also ostracized him from his base supporters. Some of why this occurs is touched on in interviews with him and his wife, yet it is never explored to the level that shows how this changed the way he is perceived by his readers and his peers. Is this a major moment for him, or did it have little impact on his writing career? The lack of how important or unimportant these moments were in Hentoff’s life made it hard to judge where he stood, or even how to analyze him.

Pleasure of Being Out of Step Movie Still 2

When hearing about his experience with jazz, be it from him or his fellow critics, or simply devotees of the genre, it is clear that he is regarded as one of the major figures in the jazz movement, and the reverence they had for his opinion and what he did for the music comes through. Through this, we get to hear some of his reviews and commentary and see why this music is important to him. We feel the respect that others have for him and how he was seen more as a promoter, to some, for his love for the music, but never a panderer. He understood what a lot of these musicians were trying to get across, and they appreciated that he stood by their visions. Several jazz albums had his commentary on them and getting to hear what he wrote made it easy to see why he is regarded as a such a great writer. His passion was very clear and he spoke in a lyrical manner that showed great thought was put into how he wanted jazz viewed by his readers. But while the passion is clear, it does start to get repetitive in some of the comments about him being a genius and hearing about how great jazz is, especially if the music doesn’t affect you that way.

In the end, Hentoff did seem like a writer I would like to read. His style of writing and his willingness to give reasons for his beliefs were compelling, but the film is simply a play-by-play of some of his greatest hits in how he shaped jazz and some of the issues he has taken on. While interesting in giving background, it was lacking the depth to make it one of those documentaries you can come back to and get something new out of it. If you are already a fan of Hentoff and like hearing him talk about his work, this will probably be enough for you. For everyone else, you will get factoids about the man, but little else.




Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

You can reach Benjamin via email or on twitter

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