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 KnoxAll About Jazz
- About Knox
- Martino Unstrung
- Making the Film
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
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.
class="f-right">Return to Index... Martino UnstrungAAJ:
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.AAJ:
What audience is the film intended to reach?IK:
I hope the film will satisfy the most avid jazz fan, curious for insight to this brilliant and iconic player, but the extraordinary nature of the human interest story will, we hope, reach further to a general audience. In addition to the 82-minute running time of the film, we have cut a further 70 minutes of DVD extras, which includes extended concert footage, interviews, master class footage, and a taste of Pat's fascinating and original "sacred geometry" musical theory. AAJ:
Did you conceive the film more as an inspirational story or as a realistic "slice of life"?IK:
The film was very much conceived as an inspirational piece. If Pat's story had a bad ending, if his personality had been destroyed by his ordeal, I doubt that I would have wanted to make the film. Pat is an unlikely and inspiring hero. His remarkable survival holds hope and wider meaning for us all.AAJ:
From working so closely with him on the film, what are your impressions of Pat as a person and a musician?IK:
It is impossible to separate the man from the musician. Pat is an artist to his very core. It's a cliche, but he really does live and breathe music. He's very curious and open to all opportunities that life puts his way. His discipline and stamina are formidable. He exercises his brain like a muscle, and his short-term memory seems better than mine now. When filming, he would work until we
dropped. We'd work him fourteen- to sixteen-hour days, requiring great concentration from him and often in unbearable temperatures. Then at the end of the day, he'd unwind for an hour or so playing duets with his wife Aya, before taking us out to dinner. He's a witty and charming man and I miss him now that the film is completed. We became great friends.AAJ:
The film is done compassionately, yet it is brutally honest in some ways. What made you decide to dig in so deeply into Martino's personality and character rather than portray him as a matinee idol of jazz, so to speak?IK:
Our love and respect for Pat was a given from the outset, so we didn't really view the material in terms of negative or positive. Rather it was about trying to chart the symptomatic shifts in his mood and behavior over the years. The idea was for Paul to make a forensic interrogation of Pat's brain to see what conclusions, if any, we could draw about Pat's remarkable recovery. To unravel this complex mystery, we needed to be scientifically accurate in presenting the evidence.
The film takes the form of a series of neurological tests, which open up the biographical highways and byways of Pat's memory. Pat is the gentlest, most spiritual person, adored and admired by most of those who come in contact with him. But we did encounter some very oddly diverse opinions from the past. According to one aggrieved producer, he's the devil incarnate. Pat's illness and recovery took him to the furthest emotional and psychological extremes and we have charted that in the film, as far as possible, through people's testimonies. The brain surgery was performed back in 1980, so no records existed. His brain surgeon, Dr. Fred Simeone, could recall a good deal about the operation, but we needed to do an MRI brain scan in order to fully understand what had been done to him.AAJ:
What made the diverse elements of Pat's story come together into a unified whole?IK:
The underlying theme of the film is about the brain and "the self" and what it is that makes each and every one of us who and what we are. That's a universal question, which we have tried to deal with in an entertaining and humorous way. That is what hopefully gives the film unity.
class="f-right">Return to Index... Making the FilmAAJ:
What prior film-making experiences were useful to you in making the film?IK:
My background is in fiction filmmaking. I'm used to working with actors and being able to hold and construct the film in my head. The experience of making Martino Unstrung
, my first documentary film, could not have been more different. The lack of crew and equipment was enormously liberating. We started with a clear structure for the film but we were very improvisational and spontaneous in shooting. We'd just follow the moment as it occurred and see where it took us. But the same rules of dramatic story telling apply. It's just that you don't necessarily understand what the story is until much later in the process. We shot 120 hours of material and I initially felt swamped by it. Jonathan Morris, the editor, who is Ken Loach's long-time collaborator, is a seasoned documentarian and he gave me confidence through a prolonged editing process. He was brilliant.AAJ:
How did you help your non-actor subjects to get comfortable in front of the camera?IK:
Well Joe Pesci can hardly be described as a non-actor. But seriously, musicians are performers. They love being in front of the camera and, once they started, it was almost impossible to stop them. Townshend and Santana are total naturals. Also, we were a tiny crew. Only Paul, myself, and Nyika and, frankly, we were such rank amateurs as documentarian that our subjects were more amused by us than intimidated.AAJ:
Did anything unexpected happen as you were making the film?IK:
Almost everything was unexpected and surprising but two characters stand out, both somehow characteristically Pat. Pat received an e-mail from a gentleman in Toronto called Stan, who heckled had him at a concert in 1976. He said that he'd carried the guilt of that act for thirty years and needed to apologize. I invited him to attend a gig that Pat was playing at the Iridium in New York with the intention of keeping them apart until the end of the gig, when we'd film the big "I forgive you" scene.
Of course, as we were setting up, Pat came right across the club, walked up to Stan, said "Hey Stan, I'm so glad you could make it," and gave him a big hug. After the gig, we shot them meeting, but it was awful. They'd had their moment and now they were acting it. We had Stan's quest threaded through the film through most of the edit, but it proved too great a distraction from the main story line, so we cut it. It was, however, a fascinating insight into how a seemingly insignificant incident can end up being an overwhelming part of somebody's life. The story of "Stan: The Toronto Heckler" is included in the DVD extras.
On another occasion, Pat wanted me to interview his friend who is a kind of alternative health guru, who had played a key role in his recovery from a life-threatening condition. This impressive whirlwind of a lady arrived at Pat and Aya's place one afternoon, took one look at Paul Broks and set about treating him for a painful trapped nerve that was afflicting him. As she worked on him, she was observing Nyika, the cameraman's posture as he set up the lights, diagnosing correctly that he had a back problem. She laid Paul out on the floor and then set about giving Nyika treatment. At a certain point, I looked at my watch realizing that two hours had passed. We had not shot anything and my interviewer and cameraman were both incapacitated. So I picked up the camera, switched it on and said, "So, tell me about how you first met Pat." We did the interview whilst she worked on Nyika on the floor, but her words were gradually drowned out by deep, sonorous snores from my cameraman. To be fair, he was exhausted from jet-lag. Paul could hardly walk for days after his treatment.AAJ:
In the film your use of cityscapes to convey meaning and emotion is marvelous. What led you to emphasize urban imagery in the way that you did?IK:
Your cities are so beautiful and dramatic to the foreign eye. We wanted to tell the medical story without resorting to men in white coats and gratuitous medical footage. We used the city as a metaphor for the human brain. The film merges three cities on two continents into a generic whole. I loved shooting in New York because people were, on the whole, very helpful in their brusque New York way. They were curious and they like people doing their thing in their space, whereas Londoners just don't want the hassle. They're not interested unless you're going to pay them, which doesn't work too well in zero-budget film-making. Pat lives in South Philly, so we spent a lot of time there. It's a big-hearted blue-collar town and it felt like coming home each time we returned.AAJ:
Can you tell us a bit about the film's composer and what qualified him for the specifics of this movie?IK:
Milton Mermikides is an English guitarist and composer who Paul and I met through the Wellcome Trust, right at the beginning of the project. He was pioneering interesting experimental music, writing his own computer software to capture human brain waves to trigger musical sequences through MIDIs. He's a great fan of Pat's and offered his services with the suggestion that he could hook Pat up to his rig. This led to one of the most lyrical musical performances in the film, which we filmed in his London studio with Pat.
I knew that I wanted a score, independent of Pat's "sync" playing in the film, that would accompany the brain journey. Pat has experimented with symphonic music in the past and we talked about the idea of his composing the score, but his busy schedule was clearly going to leave him little time to work on it. At the back of my mind, I'd been thinking of Milton for the job, but it was in fact Pat who said he felt there was somebody appropriate already involved with the film who would be right for the score. He had listened to Milton's stuff and was impressed by it. It seemed organically the right way to go. That's how the score came about. It was a very fertile and happy collaboration.
What have you learned about human beings in the course of your life and work?IK:
Mainly that there is no objective truth or reality. That's not to say that people are dishonest. Everybody has a unique story to tell but the contradictions and paradoxes that occur when you start looking at any story from multiple points of view are fascinating. That is the stuff of drama and art and maybe the clearest way to tell a story is through fiction. Paul Broks, who trained as a scientist, understands that very well, which is why I initially went to him with this project.AAJ:
What do you have in mind for future film-making projects?IK:
If you want to get to the truth, do fiction. Paul and I are working on the fictionalized movie version of the Martino story, as well as an anthology of shorter neurological tales, which will be presented in the manner of a latter-day Twilight Zone
. With Rebecca O'Brien, our brilliant producer at Sixteen Films, I'm preparing a movie adaptation of an epic Scottish novel set around World War I, called Fergus
. Making Martino Unstrung
was a great adventure so, given the right subjectprobably musicalI'd love to do another documentary film before too long.Photo Credits
Photos and Stills from Martino Unstrung
courtesy of Ian Knox and Sixteen Films
Visit the movie website for Martino Unstrung here and watch the film trailer here.