The music of John Coltrane is the real star of Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Always prevalent, underlying the imagery, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tapping your foot along to this film. John Scheinfeld’s documentary doesn’t get many points for originality — it follows the standard talking-head spliced with archival footage format that all docs seem slavishly devoted to.
What makes Chasing Trane special is that music, and the insight it provides into Coltrane’s life. Denzel Washington stands-in for Coltrane’s voice, narrating the film with the saxophonist’s own words, and Washington is superb in his own understated way. At the same time, the use of the actor to voice Coltrane is a curious one, as Scheinfeld never lets us hear Coltrane speak for himself. He’s always standing silently in smokey black and white rooms, letting his instrument make all the noise for him.
Chasing Trane follows Coltrane through his whole life. We witness his humble beginnings playing not-very-good sax in a military band, and then learn of his obsessive devotion to practicing. Day and night the musician would practice, and when neighbors would complain about the sound he would silently finger the instrument, over and over again. Chasing Trane isn’t suggesting that all we mere mortals need do is practice day and night in order to reach Coltrane’s heights; instead, it’s showing that Coltrane’s genius was always there, buried, waiting to get out; waiting to be molded and sculpted like clay.
Coltrane battles heroin addiction, and comes to a decision: he can either destroy himself like Charlie Parker, or he can kick the habit and flourish. Thankfully, he chose the latter. Coltrane works and performs with Miles Davis, and some of the best moments of the film involves archival footage of Coltrane and Davis performing together, illustrating that even though Davis may have been the bigger star of the two he wasn’t against letting Coltrane step into the spotlight. In one piece of footage we can see Davis standing in the background, watching as Coltrane solos, his neck bulging, his horn sounding unstoppable.
At the same time, Coltrane remains an enigma. Even though we hear plenty of his own words and watch him perform, Chasing Trane never finds a way to make him seem fully real. Instead, he’s like a myth made flesh; something illusory that threatens to vanish in the cigarette smoke that permeates the dark jazz clubs he’s playing in. Yet Chasing Trane serves quite well as a crash-course on Coltrane and his music. Fans of the musician will find plenty to tune into here, and the uninitiated will likely go away wanting to scoop up as much of Coltrane’s music as they can get their hands on. That music is Chasing Trane‘s power: it seduces us; it awes us. It makes us yearn for more.