Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery
The music, some improvised and some composed by Milton Mermikides, is rich with blues, rhythmic, and monastic chant connotations, with excerpts from Martino recordings and at rehearsals and performances. The film culminates with an updated MRI scan of Martino's brain, graphically showing the large empty space that represents the chunk that was removed many years ago. The film does not resolve the paradox it sets out to explore, other than for the suggestion that Martino's musical talent was left unharmed, partly thanks to the surgical skill of Dr. Simeone. Rather the story ends like an eagle rising from the canyon of a dark cavity in the left temporal lobe of Martino's brain, that was transformed by personal heroism, friendship, and divine intervention into the restoration of a self who finds love and joy in the present moment, free of his past, instead of constrained by the lack of memory.
What can be said of this film by the present jazz journalist, an avid movie-goer, but by no means a seasoned cinema critic? I have many encomiums and a few minor points of criticism. First of all, this is one of the most riveting documentaries I have ever seen. It holds ones attention from beginning to end, partly because it rapidly shifts scenes effortlessly but powerfully. One minute you are in Martino's home studio, soon to cut to a wide-angle view of Philadelphia, next in a car on the Garden State Parkway, next at an Atlantic City hotel, then in a garden overlooking Hollywood, and so on (Knox makes creative use of vivid and lively images to convey both shifting moods and a sense of pulsating neural networks).
You meet with Santana, Red Holloway, the great Les Paul, who took Martino as a young man under his wing, and others who knew Martino and/or were strongly influenced by him at various points in his life. Knox is adept at getting his subjects to relax in front of the camera. A poignant moment occurs when Martino, visiting Pesci, recalls a time when they reunited backstage at the Blue Note nightclub (no relation to the record label) in New York after the latter's recovery. Ironically, Martino could remember Pesci's films, but he had no recollection of their close friendship from the early days, until Pesci mentioned Martino's favorite drink, and the memory came back in a vivid flash. The entire film is characterized by a taut yet spontaneous atmosphere, true both to jazz music and to Martino's persona as a dude from South Philly. The feeling of the film beautifully mirrors Martino's personality and musical style, and as such represents a high level of aesthetic achievement: art and life as one.
The cinematography and audio are of the highest quality, and Mermikides' concatentation of music is splendid. If the film has a shortcoming, it is probably that some of the scenes may be puzzling to the viewer. Why meet Dr. Simeone surrounded by antique automobiles? (It is a long time interest shared by his friend, Jay Leno.) Why is Martino's wife, Ayako, lying on her back strumming a guitar? (She has a back problem, Martino taught her to play and sometimes performs duets with her, and she uses the guitar as a form of therapy.) What are Pat and Ayako doing in a garden overlooking the Hollywood Hills? (They have come to visit Joe Pesci.) Why are there geometric diagrams behind Pat in Memrikides' studio? (Pat uses them to illustrate his theory of guitar.)
The film could also benefit from more of Martino's own insights into his recovery. He shares only minimally about his creative play with music and his spiritual explorations (mention is made of Pat's brief retreat to a Cistercian monastery, but he has studied and practiced diverse spiritual traditions during much of his life), both of which played a major role in pulling him out of his depression and getting started again.
On the whole, however, Martino Unstrung is a spellbinding documentary about music, the brain, and recovery from a life-threatening medical crisis. It is one of the most intimate and probing films about a jazz musician ever made. It touches the heart and provokes the mind in a way few films do. And it is truly entertaining, due in large part to Knox's ability to combine disparate elements into a coherent, artful "slice of life" with its suspenseful medical aspects, shifting scenes, Martino's inimitable persona, and a rich cast of characters.