‘Rewind & Play’ Review: Thelonious Monk Dazzles Even When an Interview Falls Flat

The documentary “Rewind & Play” makes damning use of a 1969 interview Thelonious Monk did with Henri Renaud for the French television program “Jazz Portrait.” Monk’s European tour was set to end in Paris and the show was recorded shortly before. The interview took place nearly six years after Monk was featured on a Time magazine cover under the banner “Jazz: Bebop and Beyond” and one year before he stopped making music.

Directed by the French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis, this 65-minute, freighted documentary creates a portrait — or two — out of rushes and outtakes Gomis received from the National Audiovisual Institute while researching a fiction film about Monk. One is a study of an interview turned wincing for reasons of glib arrogance — racial but perhaps personal, too. The other is a more gleaming portrait of Monk at work.

More film essay with critical chaser than straight-up documentary, the film suggests that Renaud — a jazz pianist turned record producer and later music executive — aimed for something revelatory, but also something that shined a spotlight on his own insightfulness. But Renaud is continuously dissatisfied with Monk’s answers to his questions: about not being understood by French audiences in the 1950s, about his wife Nellie’s role in his life, about being avant-garde. Renaud asks for take after take, unable to improvise when seemingly thwarted by Monk’s responses. (In the actual 30-minute show, Monk speaks eight words, according to Gomis.)

The film is not merely playback or payback on behalf of one Black artist by another. “Rewind & Play” dazzles because it is and will remain a wonder to witness Monk seemingly discovering his compositions again and again, his fingers conjuring, his right foot etching rhythms.

Rewind & Play
Not rated. In English and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes. In theaters.

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