Lee Morgan (Archival), Helen Morgan (Archival), Charli Persip, Albert Tootie Heath, Bennie Maupin, Billy Harper, Judith Johnson, Jymie Merritt, Larry Reni Thomas, Larry Ridley, Lena Sherrod, Paul West, Ron St. Clair, Wayne Shorter
CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
It was during blizzard conditions on a February 1972 night in New York City that Helen Morgan, the common-law wife of jazz trumpet star Lee Morgan, pulled out a gun during one of his gigs and shot the 33-year-old Morgan to death right there in the club. The blizzard conditions outside delayed the ambulance's arrival, though Helen herself was quickly arrested and locked away for the crime.
Over 20 years later, a chance encounter would eventually lead to Helen giving her only post-prison release interview, an interview that occurred just one month before her death in 1996. Award-winning documentarian Kasper Collin (My Name is Albert Ayler) wraps I Called Him Morgan around this remarkable, revealing interview yet in so doing constructs one of 2017's best documentaries that is sure to be mentioned often during awards season.
Having premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, I Called Him Morgan has also screened at Telluride, TIFF, New York Film Festival and others and picked up the prize for Best Local Feature at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Collin expertly tells the story of the Morgans, a seemingly idyllic couple whose union seemed to renew and revive Lee Morgan's creativity as Helen became not just a companion but a protector and mentor to Lee, pulling him up from the throes of heroin addiction and redirecting his focus back toward that which made him great - his music. Lensed by Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma), I Called Him Morgan is a creative work of wonder, a rhythmic heartbeat of cinema that masterfully captures the jazzy vibe of another era while accurately and poignantly telling an unforgettable story.
It's no secret that Collin has a strong reputation as an intense researcher, a filmmaker with a devotion to truth and everything that supports that truth. He spent years in the creation of I Called Him Morgan, taking four years alone simply to snag an interview with Wayne Shorter, a key voice from the time but one who was hesitant to revisit that traumatic night.
Rather than utilizing re-creations, Collin incorporates 16mm film constructed to resemble home movies, an effect that feels both retro in its vibe and emotionally impactful within the framework of this story. Helen, even a month before her death, comes off as an unapologetically streetwise woman, a woman who gave birth twice by the time she was 14 but whose children never met her until they were in their 20's. Helen's life started off as a polar opposite from Lee's, her rural North Carolina upbringing a stark contrast to Lee's prodigious early years when he was hired by Dizzy Gillespie at the age of 18 and quickly became one of its stars with drummer Charli Persip, noting, "there was never no doubt in anybody's mind, Lee was going to be a star."
Yet, they were seemingly perfect together. Helen needed Lee. Lee needed Helen. Of course, it goes without saying that their relationship eventually fell apart, more dramatically than many had realized but the ways in this impacted that cold and snowy night in New York City are best left to one's viewing of this evocative, beautiful to behold film that should unquestionably appeal to even those who don't particularly include jazz among their favored genres of music. I Called Him Morgan is a human story about two starkly different yet remarkably similar humans, the love that brought them together and the harsh reality of that love that tore them apart. It's a story about love and music and forgiveness and life. It's a lot like jazz.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic