Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Nathanael Hood on The Ballad of Fred Hersch (2016) DOC NYC 2016

Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano’s The Ballad of Fred Hersch operates with much the same logic as a jazz session. It begins with a simple theme: the life and work of Fred Hersch, one of the world’s best jazz pianists. From there it flows and morphs and changes every few scenes. At first, the film seems like a straight biopic, discussing his birth and childhood in Cincinnati, his early rise in the jazz scene, and his eventual collaboration with several “surviving giants of the bebop era” like Art Farmer and Stan Getz. (Although if you want to get pedantic, and I always do, much of Getz’s best work was with bossa nova, not bebop. “The Girl from Ipanema,” anybody? “Desafinado?”) Such was Hersch’s talent that he became the only solo pianist to play at the Village Vanguard.

But the film changes key when it approaches his famous struggle with being a gay man with HIV in the macho jazz culture. There are heartbreaking scenes of Hersch meticulously laying out dozens of pills and taking them one by one with a glass of orange juice, of him being nursed by his lover Scott Morgan, of him collapsing onto a couch in exhaustion after a brief jam session with guitarist Julian Lage. And finally the film shifts once again to explore Hersch’s composition, rehearsal, and performance of My Coma Dreams, a live theater piece based on the hallucinations he suffered while in a two-month HIV coma. Usually films, let alone documentaries, frustrate me when they shift focus so often. But Lagarde and Lozano manage to keep time, preventing the film’s quiet chaos from collapsing under its own weight. They achieved this in large part by never losing sight of that original theme: Fred Hersch himself. Time and time again we find a man driven by his need to express, to create, to experiment, to emote through his music. It’s hardly surprising that Hersch’s biggest outburst of emotion in the whole film was his first embrace with Morgan after the debut performance of Coma Dreams—an extended sequence of which was inspired by his love for him. Though Hersch had seemed cool and detached in all their previous scenes together, here he breaks down into silent sob, Morgan grabbing him and whispering, “I know…I know…”

Though I suspect the film will appeal most to jazz fans, what with its prolonged sections of Hersch noodling away at his piano, any audience can appreciate its simple honesty, bravery, and beauty.


The Ballad of Fred Hersch plays Satrday November 12 at DOC NYC. For more information and tickets go here

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