Directed by: Alan Hicks.
Written by: Davis Coombe & Alan Hicks.
If Keep On Keepin’ On was a fiction film, it would probably be insufferably “inspirational” and “sentimental” in the worst way imaginable. I can imagine that someone somewhere is hard at work on a screenplay based on this true story – because it’s one of those teacher-student dramas that remain so popular in Hollywood. And yet despite having that trap of sentimentality waiting in Keep On Keepin’ On, director Alan Hicks (mainly) avoids falling victim to it. Yes, Hicks - who knew his subjects before the film - , certainly helps the film along its way (which is why it does feel slightly staged) – but mainly he just watches as an incredible friendship really does grow.
The film centers on two people – jazz legend Clark Terry, one of the best trumpet players in history, and unlike many jazz legends doesn’t seem to have a history of drug abuse and misery. After being treated poorly by jazz musicians when he was a child wanting to learn, Terry decided that he would just the opposite if he made it – and has spent much of his life teaching and working with students. One of his first was Quincy Jones, who he is still close with today – and one of his last is Justin Kauflin.
Kauflin and Terry met each other at the perfect time for each other. Kauflin has been blind since he was about 10, but he fell in love with the piano, and specifically with jazz. He dreams of being a jazz pianist – and the sees him in New York, trying (and failing) to make it as a musician. He and Terry are close – Terry held a weekly workshop at William Patterson University when Kauflin was there – and they grew close. Terry, who by then was in his late 80s (he is now over 90), has diabetes, and is slowly losing his own site. You may well think that a movie about two jazz musicians, one blind, one going blind sounds depressing – but Keep On Keepin’ On is far from that. Terry and Kauflin are both eternal optimists – and more than that, they simply like each other. Even after Kauflin leaves University, he goes to visit Terry regularly – and a recurring moment in the film has Terry ask Kauflin what time it is, only for the pair to realize they have talked late into the night.
It is nice to spend time with those two people – one who has gone through more than most people have, and is still only in his 20s. And another who is approaching the end of his life – going blind, in danger of losing a foot, etc. And yet both of them remain so positive about life – and how much they love music, that it becomes infectious. Director Hicks does incorporate a little bit of biography about Terry into the film for those (like me) who do not really know who he is – and that`s a welcome addition (even if its handled rather mundanely).
Other than that, I find I don’t have much to say about this documentary. It’s a pleasant experience from beginning to end, without ever becoming truly involving. It does feel a little more staged than other documentaries – the film seems to set up a rousing, inspirational ending at the Thelonious Monk competition, and when that doesn’t work out, Quincy Jones steps in to ensure the ending is a happy one. But I still enjoyed the film – it’s a decent little documentary – a welcome reminder that some people are just plain good.