The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing 1989 documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us courtesy of Clint Eastwood, executive producer — is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so.
It's a serious, thoughtful movie but far from a dry one. Monk himself is an incandescent screen presence, one of the oddest and most compelling stars in the history of nonfiction films about music. He mutters, he spins. He plays astonishing runs on the piano and then pulls his hands back as if he's just touched a hot stove. He confides to others in a voice so low and soft that you laugh once you realize that you actually understand what he said. Every few minutes there's a sublime moment.