It is known that February 19, 1972, Blue Note recording artist Lee Morgan was shot by his common-law wife Helen, and bled to death before an ambulance could arrive through a blizzard. Kasper Collin’s documentary I Called Him Morgan follows those individuals’ lives up to that night — and hers beyond it. The picture’s synopsis curiously describes Helen as being “implicated in his murder,” despite the fact that the shooting occurred in front of a nightclub full of witnesses, and she pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter. But the ambiguous phrasing is not entirely inappropriate, since neither Collin nor the many interviewees vilify Helen.
Instead, they acknowledge that the talented trumpeter Lee was a hot mess, and Helen — already something of a den mother to East Village jazz scene — was directly responsible for getting Lee’s life and career back on track after he succumbed to heroin. (So she was not-unreasonably angry when he stepped out with another woman.) An interview with Helen before her 1996 death provides much of the narrative, and given little film footage to work with, much of the fateful night consists of recounts over shots of a snowy New York night. In the end, everyone involved in I Called Him Morgan seems sad but not surprised by the tragic turn of events. Which is life, pretty much.
I Called Him Morgan
Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater.