June 12, 2015
Guest: Ornette Coleman - Charlie Haden - Denardo Coleman - Christopher Lee
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we note the passing of one of the most original voices in the history of jazz and a founding member of the jazz avant-garde, saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN QUARTET SONG, "LONELY WOMAN")
DAVIES: Coleman died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 85. Today, his standing as an innovator is unassailable. He's been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, won a Pulitzer and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was the subject of a retrospective series at Lincoln Center. But as a newcomer in the late 1950s, Coleman was a controversial figure in the music world. His music was so rhythmically and harmonically radical, it provoked an uproar among musicians, critics and listeners who all jumped into the fray to attack or defend this new music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN QUARTET SONG, "EVENTUALLY")
DAVIES: That's from the 1959 Ornette Coleman Quartet recording "The Shape Of Jazz To Come." Ornette Coleman was the last living member of this quartet, which also included Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. In a few minutes, we'll listen to excerpts of interviews with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, but let's start with an interview Terry recorded with Ornette. In 1987, she asked him about the early days of the quartet, which he formed in LA.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: What did you tell them at early rehearsals when you were first starting to play together and you were playing a music unlike any music that had been played before?
ORNETTE COLEMAN: I had - originally, I had told them, I said, you know, the bass - the basics of music is first learning how to play music on the instrument that you choose to play. Secondly, to eliminate the problems of having a style that get in the way that you think or feel. And third is to not get so hung up in the technique of your instrument that you cannot play music anymore. So - and I demonstrated those kind of things to them. And since I first started, I was using just the trumpet, the bass and the drums, which was not lots of musicians at that time, so it was very simple for me to give them the information that I had figured out.
GROSS: In 1959, you and the quartet moved to New York, and you opened at a club called the Five Spot. And that was maybe the most controversial engagement in all of jazz history. Jazz listeners, jazz musicians and music critics really formed into two camps over your music and seemed to be constantly debating its merits. Who were some of the musicians who you remember coming into the Five
Spot to check you out?
O. COLEMAN: Well, there was Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and people like that all came by.
GROSS: Could you share with us one of your most vivid memories from that period at the Five Spot?
O. COLEMAN: Well, I remember Mr. Bernstein coming up one night we were playing. And when we got through, he jumped to the bandstand and started hugging everyone and me and saying, you know, what a great sound it was. And then I remember one night, one musician kicked in the door with his feet and tried to hit me. And he was very disturbed about calling me an avant-garde four letter word, you know, so it was really hot and cold at the same time.
GROSS: In the mid-'70s, you formed a new kind of group, a group you called Prime Time. And the group has two bassists, two drummers and two guitarists. You frequently play in different keys and in contrasting rhythms. Did you hear that music in your head before you actually formed the group to play it?
O. COLEMAN: All the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN SONG, "MACHO WOMAN")
GROSS: Your new record is a double album. One album features you playing in the setting of the original quartet. And the other album is you and Prime Time. What was the experience like of playing again with the original quartet?
O. COLEMAN: Well, I really think that it came off very, very well because I went in the studio and had written about 16 compositions. And we recorded - all those compositions was under four minutes. And then Charlie Haden, which is a real purist-type person, thought, well, you must be doing this to get more airplay to get more popular. But I said, Charlie, you know, you've been playing with me for 25 years and you really don't have to play a 10-minute solo, a 20-minute solo to play something that you've been enjoying for 20 years. So why not try to find something that is meaningful to you because you can do it instantly?
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED ORNETTE COLEMAN SONG)
GROSS: Your son, Denardo Coleman, is one of the drummers in your band. He also manages the band and has produced the new album. I believe you're divorced from his mother. Were you close when Denardo started playing drums? Were you close with him?
O. COLEMAN: Well, I tell you, when I first came to New York, he and his mother came with me, and we checked into a hotel. And I was opening, I think, on the 17 of November, 1959, and it was very cold and uncomfortable. And she said, you know, I really don't think this is a good environment to raise Denardo, and I don't want to raise him in this environment, so I'm going to go back to California. So I said, OK, that sounds fine with me if that's what you want to do, but we kept contact. And when he became about - I think it was three years later - I called him up and asked him what did he want for his 6-year-old birthday. And he told me something about some instrument toy or something on the TV that he saw. I said, well, Denardo, you know, I don't know if I can find that instrument, but what about a set of drums? He said, I tell you what, Dad. He said, forget the toy and send the drums special delivery.
GROSS: When did you first play together?
O. COLEMAN: When he was about 8, and then we made a record when he was 9. When he has time to do his own music, which I feel that I have neglected to give him time to do that, that music that he - that is his own music, I think, is just as popular as any other music, including my own.
GROSS: Do you feel really lucky to have a son that you can play music with?
O. COLEMAN: Well, I think luck is a very inadequate word. You know, I think gift is a better word.
DAVIES: Ornette Coleman, recorded in 1987. He died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 85. We'll hear another conversation Terry recorded with Ornette Coleman and his son Denardo a little later in the show. The late Charlie Haden played bass in Coleman's groundbreaking quartet. In 1985, he told Terry Gross about his first encounter with Coleman's music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CHARLIE HADEN: I was 19 years old, and we played all day long. And he had a room full of music strewn all over the floor, the walls, the ceiling; he was constantly writing music. And he told me before we started to play, he said, Charlie, I've written these pieces now and here's the chord changes. Now, these are the chord changes that I heard inside myself when I was writing the melody, but these are just a guide for you. I want you to be inspired from them and create your own chord structure from the inspiration or from the feeling of what I've written. And that way, constantly a new chord structure will be evolving and we will be constantly modulating, and we'll be listening to each other, and we will make some exciting music. And that's exactly what happened.
GROSS: Were you surprised at how controversial the music was when you started playing it? You know, a lot of people couldn't handle it at all - musicians, listeners.
HADEN: I was very involved in learning about the playing. We were all involved because it was a brand-new language. And we were constantly learning about what it was we were doing. Things were being born every day out of what we were doing. There was a lot of controversy around us. When we opened up at the Five Spot in New York, fights used to break out right in the club. People would be putting us down. People would be praising us. The club was packed every night with everybody from different parts of the art world - painters, famous writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians. I would look out and standing at the bar would be Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Charlie Mingus. And they would be looking dead in my eye, you know, and saying OK, what are you going to do? And I would be playing and have my eyes closed.
And one night, I opened my eyes and there was Leonard Bernstein with his ear glued to the front of my instrument. And I looked over at Ornette and said, what is this? He says, I'll tell you later. And then we were invited to Leonard Bernstein's table. He invited us to the Philharmonic rehearsals. And he couldn't believe that I was self-taught, and he wanted to try and get me to study music. And he was very helpful in me getting a Guggenheim Fellowship 10 years later in composition. But it was like that every night. It was very exciting. The violence wasn't exciting. I mean, people - one guy set somebody's car on fire. One night, I remember somebody came back in the kitchen. We were standing, talking with Ornette - and I won't say who it was - and hit Ornette in the face, you know? I mean, it was really a very strong excitation time. New things were happening, not only in music, but in people's minds every night from that music, you know?
DAVIES: Charlie Haden, recorded in 1985. He died last year at the age of 76. Trumpeter Don Cherry, who died in 1995, was another member of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet. He later played Coleman's compositions in the Coleman alumni band Old and New Dreams. Terry interviewed him in 1990.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: When you played with the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot in 1959, the music you were playing was considered very revolutionary and some people really loved it and other people thought it was - well, you couldn't even call it jazz. Would you share one of your memories of what it was like then to be in the middle of all this controversy?
DON CHERRY: Like you say, some people loved it and some people hated it, didn't like it. And there would be arguments and fights and a lot of different scenes have happened. And I remember one night, Charlie Mingus bringing Phineas Newborn. And Phineas Newborn has perfect pitch. See, you know, you can have relative pitch or perfect pitch, and he had perfect pitch. And Charlie Mingus wanted him to play with us. And there was a piano there, so Charlie Mingus had brought Phineas Newborn the set end list. And we started the set. And Charlie Mingus set Phineas Newborn in front of the piano. And the host said we had played four or five tunes - an hour set. And Phineas just stood up there and looked at the piano while we were playing and didn't play a note. And at the end of the set, Mingus came up on the bandstand while Phineas was sitting there, and he took all his elbows and hands and put all the notes on the piano.
CHERRY: (Playing piano) Like that and he said, that's where it is. It's all there (laughter).
GROSS: Is one of the reasons why Ornette Coleman didn't use a piano in the quartet of the '60s - because everybody was playing slightly off-key intentionally, you know, slightly sharp or whatever, and a piano was tuned and you couldn't get between notes on a piano?
CHERRY: You're saying - yeah, the temperate. It's the temperate instrument.
GROSS: Temperate, yeah, exactly. Thanks.
CHERRY: And actually, pitch is one particular reason of not using the piano because of us working with tones and not just notes and the different ways of tuning. If there is a piano player that has the ear enough to know the voicings and can be able to voice it in a way where that you could hit those in-between tones or voices that would - which I know Thelonious could and Abdullah Ibrahim Dollar Brand can.
DAVIES: Don Cherry speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. We'll continue our tribute to saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman who died yesterday at the age of 85. In 1995, Terry recorded a second interview with Coleman, who was joined by his son, drummer Denardo Coleman. The occasion was the release of the CD "Tone Dialing" on their label Harmolodic named after what Ornette Coleman calls his harmolodic theory of music. Denardo produced the recording. Here's the opening track.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORNETTE COLEMAN & PRIME TIME SONG, "STREET BLUES")
GROSS: Denardo, what did free jazz mean to you when you were young, you know, when you were a child?
DENARDO COLEMAN: It didn't mean anything to me.
GROSS: It just meant more music.
D. COLEMAN: No, I didn't - wasn't even aware of it. I was not even aware of free jazz or any categories. You know, like I said, to me it was just a natural sort of experience, just, you know, playing music with my father and the other guys that were playing with him. And, yeah, I made some records and I would actually go and play in some performances and that was it for me.
O. COLEMAN: You know, when you say free jazz, I feel the same way. I never told anyone I was playing free. In fact, I went to a promoter that hired me to play in Cincinnati and he had posted around their city free jazz concert - Ornette Coleman. And the night of the concert, about 5,000 people showed up and not one had bought a ticket.
GROSS: (Laughter) They thought it was free jazz, right.
O. COLEMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: No admission (laughter). Ornette, remember you said earlier that you sometimes feel bad that - you feel like you've maybe limited Denardo's options because you've needed him to work with you and the band and managing you and all that. In what sense do you feel like you need Denardo, that he's doing something that someone else isn't going to be able to do for you?
O. COLEMAN: I love your questions...
O. COLEMAN: ...Because it sounds - those questions sound to me are psychological, social and racial and everything else. But basically, what I was referring to is the fact that I read in the paper the other day where a brain specialist - a guy went into the hospital and say this leg is going - this is the leg I want you to take off. Do you know the right leg? And when he woke, it was the other leg that was taken off. So for me, I would rather work with someone that know what I'm trying to achieve.
GROSS: Right, right, you feel like with a lot of people they misunderstand you.
O. COLEMAN: No, no. I said to know what I'm trying to - for instance, I had an interview with a very good critic in Europe last week. And he said oh, you know, this music, you - I really love what you're doing, but I don't understand it. I said, well, let me ask you a question. If you did understand it, would you love the music better?
O. COLEMAN: You know?
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
O. COLEMAN: Thank you very much.
D. COLEMAN: Thank you.
O. COLEMAN: Terry, do you play music or sing?
GROSS: Oh, I've played a bunch of things badly (laughter).
O. COLEMAN: Oh, that's what I thought.
O. COLEMAN: I mean, I didn't think...
O. COLEMAN: I didn't think you played them badly but I thought you must be connected to music.
GROSS: Yeah, no, but yeah - I have played piano badly and French horn badly and clarinet badly and even a little guitar badly.
O. COLEMAN: Well, next time we play, bring either one of your instruments to our rehearsals. Maybe we could find something good.
GROSS: Say I did that.
O. COLEMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: What would you - what would the first thing be? What would we do?
O. COLEMAN: Well, we would first - I'd ask you to do something that you enjoy, that you feel you do well. Then we would play with you.
GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. So you just kind of play around me.
O. COLEMAN: Well, actually, you know, I was going to ask you if you were a composer. I could give you an example of just how musicians that I ask to do what I'm asking you to do would feel more comfortable doing that because, for instance, you know, maybe you have a favorite key or a favorite - for instance, the Bach piece on the record. When I was looking for a classical guitarist, I had asked Chris Rosenberg which piece did he like. And he'd said, oh, I like this piece by Bach. I said, well, play it. Then after he played it, I said, you know, I'm going to take my horn and interpret what you are doing harmolodically (ph). And when I got through, he said I want to join your band. So I said, well, that's just the reason why I did this, so you could see why I'm interested in hiring a classical player because if you listen to that piece on there - on the CD, you would see that he's playing it twice. And the second time he plays it, he sounds like he's playing changes for us to play to resolve harmolodic ideas. And when he's playing it as a solo piece, it sounds like a melody.
D. COLEMAN: Although he hasn't changed...
O. COLEMAN: He hasn't changed - nothing changed, not at all.
D. COLEMAN: ...The way he played it both ways. He's playing the same thing both ways.
O. COLEMAN: So you could do that with us very easy, even with what you call bad.
DAVIES: Jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman and his son, Denardo, speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. Ornette Coleman died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 85. After a break, we'll listen to Terry's interview recorded in 1990 with actor Christopher Lee who died Sunday in London. Lee was famous for his portrayals of Count Dracula, but appeared in more than 250 film and TV roles. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. British actor Christopher Lee died Sunday in London at the age of 93. You can tell something about his career from the title of his 1977 memoir, "Tall, Dark, And Gruesome." Lee was a six-foot-four actor with a commanding, baritone voice, best known for his portrayals of Dracula in several films, though he also played Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy. Lee had more than 250 TV and film roles, and he did get beyond the horror genre in the 1970s, when Billy Wilder cast him in "The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes." He kept acting into his 90s. Among his other films are "The Wicker Man," the James Bond film "The Man With The Golden Gun," "The Three Musketeers," "Sleepy Hollow" and several films in the "Star Wars" and "Lord Of The Rings" series. He was knighted by Prince Charles in 2009. Terry spoke to Christopher Lee in 1990.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: I'm curious, in terms of the "Dracula" series of films that you did, were you - did you have a special interest in that type of story or was it more of circumstance that landed you in those movies?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: I think probably both because as a young man, indeed as a boy, I'd always been fascinated by fairy stories, which in a sense is what these stories are, and what these films are too, of that particular type and of that particular period, the '50s and '60s. I was always fascinated by, as I said, fairy stories, fantasy, you know, demons, necromancers, gods and goddesses, everything that is out of our kin and out of our everyday world. I was always interested in enchantment and magicians and still am. And also because I had read the book and I had perhaps discovered something in the character which other people hadn't or hadn't noticed or hadn't decided to present, and that is that the character is heroic, erotic and romantic. I tried to put all those things over. And for your information, I gather that part has been played about 125 times in different languages all over the world. And I can tell you on a personal level, and I know I'm right, that nobody has ever filmed in its entirety the book that Bram Stoker wrote.
GROSS: Can you describe for us what your vision of Dracula was, how you saw the vampire and what characteristics you wanted to bring out in him?
LEE: I never thought of him as - I never thought of him as a vampire, ever. I mean, the blood is the life. That's one thing you have to bear in mind. And it is for all of us, isn't it? Here's a man who is immortal. Here is a man who, through being immortal, is a lost soul. Here is a man who experiences the loneliness of evil, something he can't control, who wants to die but there is a force in him, a malefic force, which drives him to do these terrible things. I said earlier the character is heroic, based on the real man - a war leader and a national hero, I may say, in Romania to this day - Vlad the Impaler. Certainly a bloodthirsty character, without a doubt. I also told you that the character is romantic - so he is, as far as women are concerned, and erotic. And there's, of course, the obvious association with the bite in a sexual sense, if you like. So I tried to put all those particular characteristics into the character. It appears that I succeeded.
GROSS: How were you first cast as Frankenstein's monster? How did you get that role?
LEE: Because I'm six-foot-four (laughter), I think is the answer to that. The first 10 years of my career between 1947 and 1957, I was always being told here in Britain, not in the States - that's why I rather wish I'd been born an American and had become an American actor because my size, either too tall or too short, would've been immaterial - I was told over here I was much too tall for the average British leading man, therefore out of the question that I would be in any kind of film with any of these people because people's eyes inevitably gravitate to something that's either taller or shorter or fatter or thinner or whatever. And so rather than being discouraged by this, which I thought was nonsense anyway - and indeed, in a sense, it is - I was all the more determined that during those 10 years before I got my first break, I would learn everything I possibly could about my craft - because it's a craft and a vocation, as well as a job and a living. And I did. I did radio, I did television, I did opera, I did films in which I had very, very little to say. But I had a lot of experience in front of the camera, and that's what really counts so that when the time comes, OK, you're ready.
So when they wanted a very tall man who had some experience of mime and didn't have to say anything but could express emotions without speaking, they asked for me, or I think my agent suggested me, and I said well, why not? And that's how it all started and I thought, well, here I've been for 10 years trying to make something out of my life as an actor. I've learned a lot but I haven't done much that's worthwhile. So maybe if I make people wonder what I really do look like and make myself unrecognizable, they will be interested and intrigued, which eventually, of course, happened.
GROSS: Well, why don't you describe what your face looked like in the "Frankenstein" film?
LEE: Oh, dreadful, like a road accident. You see, we weren't allowed to use the famous Karloff makeup because that was a copyright with Universal Films. And so we just had to go through a series of tests deciding really on what would be right and what would be wrong. Some of the makeups were quite unacceptable and some were even faintly comic. But I think the answer is this - when you're playing a character which is put together from bits and pieces of other bodies, you've got to make it look that way.
GROSS: It took seven years before you made - six or seven years before you made the first sequel to "Horror Of Dracula." Why did it take so long? Did you not want to do another one...
LEE: I have no idea.
GROSS: ...Or did they not initiate it?
LEE: I've no idea. I never really knew because the first one was either '57 or '58. You know, it's so long ago, I've forgotten....
LEE: ...Almost everything about it. You're talking about 33 years ago, and the second one was in 1965, I think it was. I did it back-to-back with another picture, which was a much better film in which I played Rasputin, and of course, much more interesting to me as an actor, playing somebody who really existed. I don't know why there was this gap. I've no idea. I never thought of asking anybody really. I think the problem was that in subsequent years - and I made this claim and I'm on record as saying it, I made it very plain - the qualities of the stories for that particular character went downhill and they deteriorated. And instead of writing a story around a central character, they wrote the story first and then tried to find a way of fitting the character in. And that never works no matter what the character is. And I became progressively disenchanted and I said look, you know, you've got a great character here and you're not making the best out of it - which is why I stopped in 1971.
GROSS: Wasn't there one film where you thought that the lines were so bad that you refused to read any of the dialogue?
LEE: That was the second one.
GROSS: That was the second one?
LEE: Yes, the "Prince Of Darkness." I read the script and I said, I won't say anything in this picture. I cannot possibly say these lines. They're not only un-say-able, but they'll have everybody rolling about for the wrong reasons. This is the difficulty of course, about making a film of this kind. You're treading such a very, very narrow line between credibility and absurdity. If you slip on the wrong side, you've lost the audience and the picture's dead. Fortunately, it seems that over the years we were able to maintain that credibility, and the audience - in the famous phrase - suspended its disbelief for an hour-and-a-half to two hours and accepted what we showed them. But they're very difficult to play, these characters, obviously because they're so outlandish. And they don't exist - yet - and consequently, when I read this dialogue and read this script, I said to them, oh, come on, you know, I'm not going to say any of these lines. Can you imagine somebody in front of a camera actually saying, I am the apocalypse? Now, unless you're making a religious picture or a picture like "The Exorcist," this would sound ridiculous.
GROSS: How much of a problem did you have with typecasting after the horror films that you made in the '50s and '60s?
LEE: Was I typecast? Yes, I was over a period of time. There are always two sides to every coin. And just as success in one respect is something that every actor or actress is hoping for, and for the right reasons, not to collect money - which seems to be the case these days - but to achieve as much as you can in your chosen profession, just as success is important so that your face and your name should be known - and the two should go together all over the world, not just in one country, in a domestic market - just as that is so important, so there is the other side to success that because you become successful playing one character or in one kind of film, it can be a disadvantage because people suddenly get the impression that that's all you do and all you can do. So I was certainly typecast, certainly playing heavies in general, and sometimes horror films in particular. Although it may surprise you to know that by my own personal account, I've only appeared in 15 pictures I would describe as horror movies. A lot of people are going to argue with that one, but that's my personal opinion, which is obviously the opinion of an actor about his own work. Now, this was becoming quite a problem for me. Typecasting always is, as everybody knows. And everybody is typecast up to a point, or has been in his or her career. I remember Boris Karloff saying to me, find something that nobody else can do or will do, even if it is a type of role, and you'll be the only one, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Indeed, there isn't, but if you want to be a real actor and a true professional, and you want to show whatever versatility you think that you possess, you want to have the chance to show it. I would never have got that chance if I had remained here in Britain because casting was and still is to a certain extent cautious, conservative and bound by tradition - he only has made this kind of film. He made in it. This is all he does or she does or whatever. This applies also to directors and writers. And it's a big problem, so I was determined I was going to break these shackles, if you'd like to call them that. And I was told by many of my friends who were senior executives of the film industry in LA and by many of my friends who were producers and directors and actors and actresses, I was told by them that if I stayed here in Britain, I would make a good living and I would go on doing the same sort of film and playing roughly, very roughly, the same sort of role - the heavy, the heavy, the sinister killer or whatever, the hard man, whatever you like to call it. And I eventually would become frustrated and disenchanted and perhaps bored, and inevitably of course the audience would too. They said, you've got to come to the States. There, you will have the opportunity of showing what you can do, other parts that you can play. There will be many, many more films made, many, many more parts available to you.
And it proved to be true.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you.
LEE: Not at all, a pleasure.
DAVIES: Christopher Lee, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1990. Lee died Sunday in London. He was 93. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the documentary, "Wolfpack." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival was a film by Crystal Moselle about a group of teenage brothers she encountered by chance on a street in New York. It's called "The Wolfpack." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In the stunning documentary "The Wolfpack," we meet the six Angulo brothers of New York's Lower East Side. Each named by their Peruvian-born father Oscar for a Krishna god - Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa. In 2010, director Crystal Moselle saw them run past her on the street. They looked so wild, so childishly exuberant. Over the next five years, she would chronicle their bizarre tale. Early on, the boys explain that after Oscar married their mother, Suzanne, a hippie from the Midwest, he joined Hare Krishna and decided socialization would be destructive for his children. Physically abusive, Oscar kept his boys and their younger, mentally-disabled sister behind a bolted door in a shabby apartment in a dangerous project. They had no public schooling, no friends and few trips outside, no connection to the world. Well, there's an exception and a doozy - Oscar loved movies and gave his son's DVDs, some classics like "Citizen Kane," but most of them violent, modern films. The movie's first shot of this so-called Wolfpack is of the brothers in the dark suits and glasses of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." They act out scenes, having transcribed the dialogue. They're good, too - accents, delivery, spot on. In one scene, the fourth-oldest brother, Mukunda, shows off an astonishingly detailed Batman costume he fashioned. Gazing out the window, he explains what it means to him to act out "The Dark Knight."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WOLFPACK")
MUKUNDA ANGULO: This outfit is made out of cereal boxes and yoga mats. That's a yoga mat and the hard parts you see is cardboard from cereal boxes. When we do it, I have to get in the mind of the character. I have to be as strong as I can be to play Batman 'cause there's a responsibility sort of. That sounds pathetic to some people because - but to us and to our world, it is very personal.
After I saw "The Dark Knight," that made me believe that something was possible to happen, not because it was Batman; it's because it felt like another world. I did everything I could to make that world come true, to escape my world.
EDELSTEIN: One day in 2010, Mukunda slipped out of the apartment, but felt he'd be so exposed he wore a mask of Michael from the classic slasher "Halloween." He rambled, loitered, frightened passersby, got arrested, but his father's seal had been breached. "The Wolfpack" tells the story of the boys' gradual emergence into the world for which they're unequipped in many ways, but in others, surprisingly in tune. Part of that should be credited to their mother's homeschooling; the other part to - well, "Reservoir Dogs," "Halloween," "Friday The 13th." I confess I watched "The Wolfpack" with a mixture of awe and shame. I love some violent movies. Horror pictures and films like "The Godfather" and "Taxi Driver" helped me through adolescence. But as a critic, I often lament the coarsening effect of casual mayhem on the young and impressionable. But here is a documentary that shows how even pulpy, sadistic art can be a lifeline, a bridge off the island of terror that was the Angulo brothers' nuclear family. It's a vital reminder of what I'd forgotten movies can do. The Angulos are beautiful camera objects, dark-haired and eyed like their father, but also rangy and open-faced like their mother. Watching them move around the city - riding subways, seeing a movie in a theater for the first time, splashing in waves off Coney Island - is thrilling, heartbreaking. Sand on the beach reminds them of "Lawrence Of Arabia." A stand of trees - a forest from "Lord Of The Rings." But "The Wolfpack" is at times so painful it feels longer than its 84 minutes. And the brothers' bitterness towards their father is always in the air. Oscar largely remains in his bedroom, a recluse. The man we finally meet is a stooped gnome who never learned much English and is probably an alcoholic. Pressed by the director, he stammers it doesn't matter what you do in life. It's what you are - things happen. His boys have chosen to take responsibility for their own fates. At the end, they stage and shoot a pageant that's like a mixture of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and surrealist fantasy film pioneer George Melies. You can't believe how gorgeous and expressive it is. This is the rare profile documentary that's also a transcendent work of art because it captures astonishingly how art can help you make the kind of imaginative leaps that free your mind.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album featuring the music of Bill Frisell. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Jazz composer and arranger Michael Gibbs was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and has lived mostly in England, with time out for stints as a student and teacher in Massachusetts. One of his students at Boston's Berklee College in the 1970s was guitarist Bill Frisell. Now Gibbs and Frisell team up on a new big band record. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's the album some Frisell fans have been wishing for.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL SONG, "BENNY'S BUGLE")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bill Frisell, twanging the blues on Benny Goodman's "Benny's Bugle." Some Frisell fans grumble that with all his rootsy Americana projects, he doesn't record much jazzy jazz these days. For them, there's the new CD "Michael Gibbs & The NDR Bigband Play A Bill Frisell Setlist." It's Gibbs's pick of songs the guitarist wrote or recorded with Frisell as one guest soloist. The other is drummer Jeff Ballard, who really lights a fire under that German radio orchestra. This is Bill Frisell's "Freddy's Step."
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL SONG, "FREDDY'S STEP")
WHITEHEAD: Guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Jeff Ballard with the NDR Bigband. You can tell arranger Michael Gibbs likes Carla Bley's wit and dry romanticism. He also loves the densely transparent harmony of composer Gil Evans - a sound like all the notes of a scale hanging in still air.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Michael Gibbs will tip his hat to his heroes, but he has his own ideas, and he gives Frisell, the composer, the attention he deserves and attentive readings. Gibbs's arrangement of "Monica Jane" echoes the guitarist's pleasantly sour harmony. The moaning brass makes a smart connection to Charles Mingus's ballads.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONICA JANE")
WHITEHEAD: The NDR Bigband has a few capable, if not always memorable, soloists. Most of the improvised thrills come from the American guests. As with most big bands, the horns will fall away to give a soloist a clear shot. Here's Frisell on Lee Konitz's "Subconscious-Lee" based on "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL SONG, "SUBCONSCIOUS-LEE")
WHITEHEAD: Bill Frisell can be a creatively disruptive force in an ensemble - the Thelonious Monk of the guitar. Engaged as he is here, he barely plays that delightful trickster role. Sitting in someone else's orchestra, he behaves like a proper guest, even though they're playing his setlist.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Michael Gibbs & The NDR Bigband Play A Bill Frisell Setlist" on the Cuneiform label. On Monday's show we'll speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner, who's been pouring over the tens of thousands of documents released in recent years from and about the Nixon White House. His new book is "One Man Against The World." Hope you can join us.
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