Blinded as a newborn by hideously incompetent medical personnel, discovering sound possibilities as a youth by blowing through the cut-off end of a garden hose, dreaming of playing multiple horns simultaneously then soon after finding the perfect (and antique!) horns in a pawn shop basement, and, unaccountably, willing himself into one of the most unique and passionate players in jazz during a decade (the Sixties) of abundant uniqueness and passion, Rahsaan Roland Kirk should have been the subject of a feature-length documentary a long, long time ago. True, Dick Fontaine’s 25-minute 1967 documentary Sound??, featuring Kirk and John Cage making a compelling and wryly humorous case for sound as music, is a cult classic–the footage of Kirk serenading wolves at the London Zoo and rocking the hell out of his classic “Three For the Festival” at Ronnie Scott’s can make a benighted viewer a lifelong fan. Rhino’s issue of Kirk’s wonderful 1972 Montreaux concert is also a piece of essential viewing for any jazz freak. But the inspiring and tragically short life of Kirk is one of the most gobsmack-inducing tales in music, and director Alan Kahan has done it proper in The Three Sided Dream. See it as soon as you get the chance; my sources tell me Kahan’s having difficulty finding screenings for it, and that’s a completely unjust situation for him and his film.
Honestly, having been a Kirk fan for many years, seen, heard, and read everything about him I could get my hands on, and experienced a few more unimaginative music documentaries than I would have liked, I walked into the film with, well, meager expectations. That is, I figured I’d see footage I was already familiar with, hear a procession of talking heads retell Kirk’s life story, and miss some important information (likely, I thought, about his politics) that might have made the film and the artist’s portrait more complex. I’m happy to report that Kahan’s film is a major success. Mainly, he invests it with such emotional power, through his handling of Kirk’s struggles with critical misunderstanding, racism, and blindness (the latter, wonderfully, seems the least difficult challenge Kirk faced!) and his integration of Dorthaan Kirk’s home movies of her husband and children, that I–and other viewers–struggled with tears of inspiration throughout the movie. Also, the talking heads here almost always have something insightful and interesting to say, especially trombonist Steve Turre, who played in Kirk’s band after the hornman suffered a stroke that would have ended the career of 99.5% of other musicians but which failed to completely derail Rahsaan. Turre’s sense of humor and wonder, and his trove of concert stories, are a cut above the usual music-doc fare. Mrs. Kirk’s recalling of her life with Rahsaan–especially her reflections on his post-stroke struggles–are also major highlights of the film. Though I had seen roughly half of the footage Kahan unearths for The Three Sided Dream, what I hadn’t seen was often revelatory, especially a full, spectacular performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the story behind which is worth the price of admission–and you will have to pay it to find out. Most important, Kahan lets the voice of Kirk–visionary, witty, angry, playful, the voice of a true old soul–tell most of the story.
I have few quibbles about the film. I initially felt the long, initially-uncredited reminicense/assessment of Kirk by a modern poet that opens the film unnecessarily hindered its momentum; upon reflection, it now seems equivalent to a good theme-setting introduction to a book. One sequence includes Kirk’s famous (and amazing!) combining of “Sentimental Journey” and a segment from Dvorak’s New World Symphony–he plays the melodies simultaneously on different horns and harmonizes them, with spectacular results–but the narration and animation run over the actual performance, so that when we are left alone to hear the music, Kirk’s moved on from his experiment to a new melodic expression. But, as I said, those are mere quibbles.
I cannot overstate how powerful this movie is. It hit me so hard I was still feeling sorrow (along with an overpowering desire to listen to Kirk all of this week, which I will) an hour after I walked after the theater–that Kirk died at 42 is just a cruel theft of (or by?) the cosmos. As well, I felt immense joy and inspiration in beholding a story of titanic artistic and personal accomplishment against towering odds. I cannot quite imagine the impact it will have on open-minded, open-eared music fans who know nothing of Kirk’s life and music. Do your best to seek this film out and see it; consider, as well, the possibility of helping the filmmaker get The Three Sided Dream to a wider audience.
Note: Upon having seen the film–or, perhaps, in preparation for it–read John Kruth’s engrossing Kirk biography Bright Moments, and try these classic Kirk recordings just to get started (there’s more):
We Free Kings (Mercury)
Rip, Rig, and Panic (Mercury)
I Talk with the Spirits (Verve)
The Inflated Tear (Atlantic)
Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic)