In the winter of 1969, at fifty-two years old and after decades of revolutionizing the way we hear notes and silence, the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk was invited to record a conversation and solo session for French television. As the outtakes of the program reveal, the occasion quickly devolved into a probe of Monk’s carefully protected private life.
By this point in his career, it was commonplace to portray Monk as stylistically bizarre. He and his music were often presented as conjoined elements in a broken or stilted grammar of near-madness, as though strangeness were his currency. The TV program, aired in 1970 as “Jazz Portrait: Thelonious Monk,” was no different. The interview at the center was conducted by Henri Renaud, a French jazz pianist, whose evident idolization and envy of Monk distorts any effort at an honest conversation. Both the final version and the additional footage that was left out stand as a testament to the media’s effort to capitalize on Monk’s perceived oddities by fashioning him into a jester for his rapacious public.
“Rewind & Play: ‘It’s Not Nice?’,” a new documentary about Monk by the French Senegalese director Alain Gomis, remixes the original raw footage into a devastating ballad of the artist’s erasure. At the beginning of the film Monk deplanes in Paris. From the opening frames, we witness the gleam in his eye and the rhythm of his gait. As a muse, he is ideal—captivating to observe and aware of his effect on others. A bewildered half smile leaves and returns to his face in intervals, like a refrain. It’s especially sincere at the arrivals gate, and it widens when his wife, Nellie, who has accompanied him from New York, comes into frame. She sports a low Afro, a sleek black coat, and gold-rimmed sunglasses whose chic gaudiness contrasts with her modest demeanor. If Monk is our muse, she is his.
From the outset, it is clear that the unspoken, like the dropped notes in Monk’s music, is the defining characteristic of his approach to private life. When he’s not looking at Nellie, whose presence makes his hierarchy of feelings immediately apparent, it’s difficult to determine the ratio of pleasure to angst in his movements. Film crew in tow, the couple arrive at their hotel. Monk heads to a bar, still armored in his regal half-hearted cheerfulness but on the brink of his alternate register, a discreetly exasperated-ecstatic one. A bystander, not wanting to be documented, remarks in French, “Oh, it’s a hidden camera . . . we mustn’t talk.” Monk has a drink and a hard-boiled egg, never putting down his cigarette. He turns around to pet a dog that someone has brought to the bar, and, as the light brightens, the bloodshot cast of travel and exhaustion is visible in his eyes.
Monk’s dominant energy at this point in the film is a jovial melancholy. In the recent past, his peer John Coltrane and his friends Bud Powell and Elmo Hope had all died, and Monk himself had spent more than twenty gruelling years of touring, playing, living, and composing within the unforgiving confines of an industry that preyed upon its talent. As Robin D. G. Kelley writes in his biography of the jazz legend, Monk had quite literally walked off his pain, sometimes walking so much that he got sores on his feet. Following the death of his idol Coleman Hawkins, Monk was said to have paced for three days. The cameras capture the wry decorum of a man too generous to pursue escapism wholeheartedly and too intelligent to relish sycophants trampling on his soulfulness in pursuit of his glamour. A few scenes in, we get Monk at the piano rehearsing a haunted melody while bystanders perch around the instrument and smoke. Renaud instructs, “Make it look like it’s live . . . That’s the modern way.”
The plaintive self-consciousness of this request makes Monk seem like an ancient sage surrounded by fractious acolytes. The film crew stare him down as he plays, as if his genius were a transgression and they are a tribunal. His chords become more sombre, indicating his awareness of their scrutiny. It’s a visually wrenching exchange between performance and spectatorship. Eventually, Monk wearies and leaps up from the bench abruptly, ceremoniously. In another scene, he sits down and submits to the interview portion of the program. “Do it your way,” he says, in restrained frustration. Among the melodies Monk plays is “Crepuscule with Nellie,” a song he wrote for his wife, and Renaud opens the interview by asking about her. All the romance that Monk conjured with his composition is held up for investigation. His bewildered grin returns and turns into something more detached. Renaud repeats the question.“All I can say is that she’s my wife and the mother of my kids,” Monk offers guardedly. The film crew prod him for another take. He repeats the same simple pronouncement. Do they want him to reiterate the passion that he confessed to with his playing?
Renaud persists, changing the subject to feign mercy. Why does Monk keep his piano in his kitchen, he asks, seemingly anticipating an outlandish pop-spiritual explanation about the energy of the room, a neat anecdote that can be added to jazz mythology. Monk responds matter-of-factly: “That was the largest room in the apartment.” Renaud appears crestfallen. In French, he had added that he’s been to Monk’s “cramped” New York apartment, and inflects the adjective with blunt pathos. Monk’s eyes are starting to spin and rove, not in anger so much as the palpable disappointment of one who has been tricked and cornered by forces he almost trusted.
Gomis does a startlingly precise job of imposing a Chaplinesque burlesque on the breakdown in communication between Monk and Renaud. There’s a muscle to the exchange between shots, takes, and pauses that is reminiscent of real sparring in a ring. Sweat gathers on Monk’s brow, its presence made more overwhelming by the invasive lighting. His eyes narrow into deeper alertness and take on a saddened cast, as the subtle attempts to undermine him accumulate. Tense silences stand in for the bells between rounds.
Relentless, Renaud reroutes to another, equally risible line of inquiry. He wants to know if Monk feels that he was “too avant-garde” for the audience at his first concert in France, in 1954. Now Monk is openly indignant: “It seemed like that I was the star the people was coming to see, but I wasn’t getting the money.” Cut! This scene is the source of the film’s subtitle. Having led Monk to acknowledge his own stature, Renaud halts. “It’s not nice,” he eventually reprimands Monk condescendingly, all of his submerged arrogance and entitlement finally on display.
On the second take, Monk’s recall is more detailed and more resentful. He reiterates the sentiment that he was being exploited, and it seems clear that he’s aware that he is again being exploited in a similar way. “Bernard, I think it’s best if we erase it. What he’s saying is really derogatory,” Renaud interjects in French, a language Monk cannot fully understand. Monk is now smiling with an air of sublimated rage and disbelief, still and statuesque as a tintype. Imagine being berated and told that it’s an honor.
Monk stands up and attempts to walk offstage. “How about us going to this dinner and forgetting this TV program?” he stammers, pained, painful to watch. Renaud physically jostles him back toward the bench. For a moment, their clash is a near-embrace, one that stalemates in Monk’s tentative acquiescence. He’s still standing for his third attempt at the question about his first tour in France. This round, he plays the changes: “The first time I came to France, I was ossified all the time I was here.” Finally, a threat—this retort proves he knows that he’s being asked to stiffen into the same thankless showmanship all over again. He lights a cigarette, his face now assuming an expression of resigned contempt. He recounts his modest beginnings for a few bars, while Renaud maintains a smug distance. Then, with an emphatic “Merci beaucoup!,” Monk liberates himself from the exchange.
“I should care, I should let it upset me” are the lyrics to the song that Monk solos in the next scene. As the television crew orbit the piano, he slurs the standard’s notes, some giggling and the bulk sobbing quietly. While playing, he walks into his own shadow, grinning. Monk’s dignity and agency are apparent in his walk, and he plays like he walks, in round and dreamy notes with a destination clear only to him. These are the brilliant circles for which he named his compositions, and they are aspects of his nature that arouse rapture from anyone with eyes and ears. Asking him to dissect his process on a technical level is tantamount to an act of hostility. Everything he has to testify he has volunteered as song and gesture, spinning circles again and again for us, until we might comprehend the pattern between notes that only he can access and that only he can elaborate into work of understated and jarring beauty. The soft pink hue of aged videotape appears over Monk’s image, like the flag of a new nation under jazz. Beads of his sweat fall on ivory keys, and his fingers move with even greater agility. More perspiration falls, and the room goes silent.
Cameramen and journalists often make the mistake of thinking that they can package an artist into an icon, bestowing upon their subject an image that might be converted into money or fame. Biographers and documentarians make this mistake, too. The elegance of “Rewind & Play” lies in its effort to back away from this territory of error and subjection, and in doing so to dim the obnoxious, prideful lights of the tradition of star-making. The film closes with a montage of Monk’s silent gestures, which exhibit a tenderness and deliberateness so arresting that you almost forget you’ve just watched him provoked into a muted war with the idea of himself. We hope that Monk himself was able to forget that subtly riveting trauma, but it’s doubtful. What we witness in “Rewind & Play” is likely one of the incidents that instigated Monk’s withdrawal from public life, seven years after “Jazz Portrait” was filmed. When, during that retreat, the producer Orrin Keepnews called him to ask if he would like to talk about “the old days” Monk’s succinct response was “No, I wouldn’t.”
Many years later, in 1986, the pianist Cecil Taylor was filmed watching a Monk concert on video. He gasps in appreciation and smiles like a giddy child: “He has on wonderful shoes, he has on wonderful shoes!” I think Cecil has it right. His outrageous praise lets him meet Monk on his own terms, in a sense of rhythm and style so exclusive that even its withholding character is a display of care and sympathy toward admirers. Monk, his music, and his silence epitomize an adage attributed to Louis Armstrong—if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. ♦