When the rare combination of a serious film director, a neuropsychologist and a legendary jazz musician join together to make a movie about a catastrophic series of events in the musician's life, the result has the potential to be electrifying. That is how the film, Martino Unstrung engages the viewer.
The stories, personalities, and audio-visual images come at the viewer with the relentless rapidity of a Martino guitar run. The result is a driven, honest, and moving narrative that could only have been made by a director who loves jazz, humanity, and film-making with equal passion and dedication. Such is Ian Knox, the prime mover of what is perhaps the finest documentary about a jazz musician ever made.
Knox was in Philadelphia to offer a private screening of a preliminary cut of the film to Martino, his wife Ayako, and some close friends and associates. Far from the flamboyant, demanding individual, Knox is relaxed, warm, friendly, and open. All formality dropped away in his warm presence. That may be among the characteristics that gave him directorial rapport with Martino and the other personae who weave their way through this marvelous film. Here is what Knox had to say about himself, the film, and the experience of creating it.
- About Knox
- Martino Unstrung
- Making the Film
All About Jazz What is your favorite movie of all time? Who are some of your favorite film directors and actors?
Ian Knox: That's tough. Knee-jerk response: Polanski's Chinatown. It encompasses everything that is exciting about cinema for me. My favorite film directors include Visconti, Fellini, Jancso, Kubrick, Polanski, Coppola, Wilder, the Coen brothers and Lynch. Among my favorite actors and roles are Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998), Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (1974) and The Shining (1980), Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974), and Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967).
AAJ: You're a noted film director, and like Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, you are also a jazz fan?
IK: I listen to all sorts of stuff. As an art student I played bassstill d0in a jazz quartet called Jobsworth. Wes Montgomery's "Four On Six," which Pat has made his own, was in our rep. We were pretty good, though hopelessly unfashionable, as everybody else was in punk bands. I love great guitar players. It's a complex, soulful instrument with incredible range. I love the clean, mercurial lines of Pat Martino and at the other end of the spectrum, Ali Farka Toure with his rough-hewn African blues. I don't really understand why, but they both move me deeply. I think Pat and Mr. Farka Toure would have hit it off.
AAJ: How did you become a film director?
IK: Serendipity and hard work. As an art student, I spent a lot of time in the photography department preparing silk-screens and found a clock-work Bolex camera in the cupboard. I was going out with a girl who was a drama student, so we just started shooting films over weekends with her friends. Also, I was seeing the best of world cinema on my doorstep at the Edinburgh Film Festival and had the chance to meet some great filmmakers. I was very inspired by the work of Hungarian director Miklos Jancso who made epic movies with ten shots. That took me to Budapest where he accepted me on attachment on his film Magyar Rapszodia (1979), which was a wonderful experience and sparked a life-long love affair with Hungarian Cinema. His son Nyika Jancso is the director of photography on Martino Unstrung. Returning from Hungary, I studied at the National Film School in the UK.
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AAJ: How did you get the idea for the film?
IK: Whilst painting the house we had recently moved into in 2004, I read a newspaper review of Pat Martino's gig at Ronnie Scott's by John Fordham in The Guardian newspaper. I didn't know Pat's work, but this review said to get down there and hear one of the jazz guitar greats who, furthermore, had "forgotten more music than most musicians learn in a lifetime," alluding to Pat's experience of amnesia. I went along that night with my wife Sarah.
The first set was amazing. Pat was on fire. Between sets I said hello to him at the bar and thanked him for the beautiful set. He bought me a beer and during a brief conversation I asked him if, on returning to the guitar, he had "studied himself." He roared with laughter, saying "No man, I stayed well away from myself. That was the point." I was hooked. I asked him if we could meet again to talk about the possibility of making a film based on his story. We exchanged numbers, and when he returned to London the following year, I arranged to meet for lunch at his hotel. In fact, we very nearly didn't meet because London was paralyzed by the terrorist bombings of 7/7, but by mid-afternoon I was able to find a way around the police cordons by bicycle and we had a very long chat, way into the night, as Pat's gig at Ronnie's was cancelled.
I'd been thinking for some time about how to write a movie based on Pat's story, when a friend recommended that I read a book called Into The Silent Land (1978) by a neuropsychologist named Paul Broks. As I read Paul's stories, a thrill of recognition passed through me. Here was a great writer who could not only describe, seemingly from the inside and with compassion, the place where Pat had been but could also make accessible the science of the human brain, its shortfalls and the challenges it faces in understanding the human condition. I wrote to Paul and he responded enthusiastically to my proposal that we write a dramatized film together. On meeting, we hit it off and we were both talking the same sort of film. After a long afternoon with Pat in London, we somewhat changed our ideas.
The chemistry between the three of us felt great. Pat and Paul were clearly infatuated with each other. We felt that we'd be missing a trick if we failed to get Pat on film and decided to make a documentary. My friend Rebecca O'Brien, who produces films for Ken Loach, believed in the project and helped us get it made through their company Sixteen Films, with funding from The Wellcome Trust.