I Called Him Morgan **** / *****
Directed by: Kasper Collin.
Written by: Kasper Collin.
I Called Him Morgan is a beautiful, sad documentary about a great musician whose life ended far too early. In many ways, jazz musician Lee Morgan lived the clichéd life you think of when you think of jazz – a young, gifted, African American trumpet player, whose greatness was recognized early on, but whose life was derailed by heroin. Unlike many, though, he somewhat pulled himself together – even though he still ended up dead at the age of 32 – not from the drugs, but from his wife. That was Helen More, who was significantly older than Morgan, but found him at his lowest point, and helped to drag him out of it, and back into music. She was the jealous type though, and when he started seeing another woman – even if, by (most) accounts the drugs had such an effect on Morgan, he couldn’t “perform” that way even if he wanted to, she got jealous, and shot him one cold, stormy night at Slug – a Jazz club in New York. On many other nights, he may well have survived – but that night, there was a billiard, so it took the ambulance an hour to reach him – by which point, and it was too late.
Although the elements of I Called Him Morgan probably sound like the stuff of documentary cliché, as directed by Kasper Collin, the film becomes something altogether more haunting and beautiful than that. Yes, it has elements of True Crime – but it’s not a whodunit, and the reason behind it are simple and straightforward. It is a portrait of these sad people, who lives were full of regret and loss. The movie is built around an audiotape interview with More, conducted in 1996, the month before she died. She tells how she meet and fell in love with Morgan – she didn’t call him Lee, because she didn’t like that name – and how eventually she killed him. Collin intercuts clips from that interview with interview with Morgan and More’s contemporaries, families, friends, etc. – giving a fuller portrait of both of them, and the era. Oddly, there is not a lot of anger in the film –everyone seemingly feels empathy for both parties involved. There are fond memories though, and a lot of Morgan’s music – which Collin lets speak for itself, not providing much in the way of context or analysis for it.
I Called Him Morgan is an example of what I wished more documentaries would do. Far too often, documentary directors do not think visually or aurally when crafting their films – they simply set up a camera, film a few interview, throw in some archival footage, and call it a day. When the material is strong enough, this can still work – but the best docs have something a little extra to them. Collin has crafted his film, constructing it in a way that highlights the music, and underscores the sadness of the story. This isn’t just a series of talking heads – but something greater.
In the end, you’re left with a sad story of two people who in many ways destroyed each other. Morgan has been gone for more than 40 years – More, more than 20 now. All that’s left now is the memory of those who knew them, sadness over the wasted lives, and, of course, the music. This is a beautiful doc that hit me harder than I expected it would – because it goes deeper than most docs of its kind do.