by Chris Estey
It is a story as old as the ages. The wizard behind the king, the melancholy mad alchemist who focuses his entire being into a form that gives his patron power and glory in the world. The dreamer is a servant who loses himself in the spell, and for reasons perhaps having to do with brokenness and love and shame, he accomplishes things his stronger, more public half never could, but with him and through him — and yet eventually the muse vanishes quietly, as such relationships are rarely understood by the singular icon-adoring legions. People love a hero, yet they rarely understand that a hero often draws his power from those he chooses to use (and not necessarily to save).
Before viewing Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival, I didn’t know much about small, black, cherubic, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing Billy Strayhorn. I knew that he was Edward Kennedy Ellington’s much loved and quietly controversial collaborator (as a pianist, arranger, and composer for the Duke), and I had grown up in a household listening to their work together — everything from the early, heavenly-sounding, poetically revealing, genre-ripping “Lush Life” to the jolly, ubiquitous “Take The A-Train,” to the classically noir soundtrack of Anatomy of a Murder. But I had no idea what depths of physical pain and psychic torsion were behind the creativity in such awesome music (“American Music” Ellington liked to call it, not “jazz” or “classical”). This movie reveals all of that suffering, but it is peopled with such a wise and attractive cast of musical veterans and preservatives that this crackling oral history is fun to watch and might be my favorite film of this year’s SIFF.
Strayhorn was a gravely ill child, constantly fatigued as he grew up in a working class family in Pennsylvania, haunted by the deaths of four siblings, and probably barely understood by his steel working father. He was transformed by watching an Ellington show at the Penn Theatre, and the Duke’s music, along with that of Jelly Roll Morton and the blind genius Art Tatum, made Strayhorn ambitious at the piano in spite of the discouragement of his teachers. Soon Ellington worked to get Strayhorn on board with his legendary big band, initiating the first of many mysterious relational moves that sparked their creative marriage. There are subplots involving Strayhorn’s three most affecting romantic relationships, the first two with fellow black male composers and musicians that were painstakingly disguised from public view — and the unique, affectionate hook-up with Ellington’s lover Lena Horne, where Strayhorn found the perfect voice for his otherworldly compositions, and the two eventually taking committed stances together in the civil rights movement.
Edited to a taut length and spilling over with astonishing music,music too beautiful to be described, and told through poignant and prickly quotes from Ellington, Ellington’s son Mercer, and many other (humble, hidden) musical geniuses, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life was inspired by the revealing 1996 biography by David Hajdu. Hajdu happens to be one of my favorite non-fiction writers, a remarkable biographer who has interviewed Thomas Pynchon (Positively 4th Street) and profiled Dr. Frederic Wertham (in his most recent book, Ten-Cent Plague), and includes excellent quotes here about the tension-filled yet insanely-dedicated relationship between a focused, ferociously intelligent gay black man and perhaps the projection of his soul, the fiery yet charismatic bandleader.
Writer/producer/director of Lush Life, Robert Levi intuitively sculpts the story, expressing Ellington’s fear of and respect for Strayhorn. When Ellington is personally quoted, he never conveys anything but immense respect for his collaborator. (He is often shown giving Strayhorn props in interviews and when introducing the Orchestra.) And yet in other interviews with musicians the pair worked with, it is suggested that Strayhorn’s intellectualism intimidated Ellington from the beginning, no matter how useful it was to help complete so many of his best loved and known hits (“Satin Doll”) and noteworthy failed experiments (“Black, Brown, and Beige”). Occasionally, commentators imply Strayhorn’s exploitation and even claim that Strayhorn may not have accomplished anything without Ellington. It’s an artistic rollercoaster of emotion watching Strayhorn trying to come out from behind the shadow of the big man, such as when, for example, he worked with Orson Welles on an ill-fated (yet somehow fitting) adaptation of Faust and then witnessed Welles later give Ellington all the credit for music Strayhorn had brought to life for the Duke.
There are memorable scenes for so many music fans and observers of cultural politics here: seeing how Frank Sinatra doesn’t quite capture “Lush Life” himself and aches to work with Strayhorn; vintage clips of Horne and others; new performances by Dianne Reeves, Hank Jones, and Elvis Costello; Ellington’s own bemusement at not being able to figure out how Strayhorn created a certain chord as he trills on a piano; the dimly photographed underground black and gay parties where only both could socialize freely mere decades ago; how Strayhorn helped Ellington create and finish masterpieces that challenged everyone’s thoughts about popular music and then rarely ever attended the celebrations that were the result of his efforts. And finally, the image of a stoic visionary never seen without a cigarette and a drink, lovingly presenting a final composition for students before he would hand it over to an eager Ellington. Strayhorn turned on the wheel of life, as the song goes, and his brokenness took music to realms we never would have experienced otherwise.
preview of Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life