"Ornette: Made in America": Portraits in Space, Time, Performance, and Jazz

The invaluable American independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke (1919-97) once said: "There is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I've never made a documentary. There is no such trip." Her genre-blurring claim applies to all her features, of which 1985's Ornette: Made in America is the last. A funky, nonfiction tribute to the great avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Ornette upends the staid portrait-of-the-artist formula, and it tinkers with and discards the conventions of the bio doc just as its pioneering musician subject exploded those of jazz. Ornette opens with Coleman and his band, Prime Time, returning to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, in September 1983 after a 25-year absence to perform a nightclub set at the opening of the Caravan of Dreams cultural center and his 1972 opus, Skies of America, with the Fort Worth Symphony at the snootier Convention Center. Clarke blurs time, space, and formats; the performance footage, expertly shot on Super 16 by Ed Lachman, plus other moments in the Texas city — including scenes of Coleman reminiscing with old-timers about busing and segregation — form the loose throughline of Clarke's film while highlighting the legacies of racism. "Ornette has pursued what we wants to do — this got him branded as an eccentric in his youth and a genius now that he's older," New York Times critic John Rockwell says in the film. (Coleman, born in 1930, is still performing.) Clarke followed a similar path; more just need to discover her genius. (M.A.)

 
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