I’m going to start this review by noting that before watching I Called Him Morgan, I’d never encountered jazz musician Lee Morgan. My knowledge of jazz admittedly has holes, so I’d never heard his music and, of course, never heard the tragic story of his life. I mention this only because Morgan is a documentary, the cinematic form that tends to work best when you have a built-in interest in a film’s subject. There are exceptions, of course, but I’m unfortunately not convinced that Morgan will stick with me far beyond this review. That’s unfortunate because Morgan’s story is one worth telling, and this film is perhaps the best possible means of doing so.
I say this because documentaries have always been a tough sell for me. I rarely find them more than curious and have an even harder time with their lack of cinematic verve. They’re too often of a single, rote style, full of little more than talking heads and archival footage. Morgan is no different in this sense, but what it gets right — or perhaps stumbles into — is a cast of primary sources who worked, knew and seemingly loved Morgan. There is genuine emotion here from people who cared about this musician and regret his lost potential, his lost life and all the tragedies in between. There’s something pure at work in Morgan, something that can’t be shirked.
The film opens with the end of Morgan’s life — that he was shot to death by his common-law wife Helen — and then fills in the gaps not only of his life but Helen’s, too. The film is as much about Morgan as it is Helen, who found herself in New York City and pulled the talented, but troubled, Morgan out of a heroin addiction and back into life and music. Theirs was a volatile relationship, however, and the film sets that up from the beginning. But as the movie progresses, you understand that there was genuine love there, something that makes Morgan‘s ending all the more affecting.
And it’s not just Morgan and Helen’s love, but the love of their friends who are interviewed, who still don’t seem to understand how any of this could have happened, even decades later. It’s this genuineness, this sense of humanity, that makes Morgan special in its own small way. If you’re a fan of Morgan’s music or more in tune with documentaries than I am, then this is definitely worth your time. Not Rated. Opens May 5 at Grail Moviehouse.