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Inside Scofield


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John Scofield
Inside Scofield
I'm Filming Productions

With jazz being an increasingly marginalized art form (at least in the commercial sense), any news of serious documentary work about one of its more iconic practitioners is likely to garner an immediate hallelujah from the chorus. Perhaps this is doubly so when the subject is someone like guitarist John Scofield—a contemporary jazz hero who has yet to receive such treatment. But then, as always, there follows a collective breath-holding to see if the finished product can make it through the minefield of expectations.

So what is first and foremost to know (and perhaps the key to not letting it fall prey to those eviscerating expectations) is that Joerg Steineck's Inside Scofield is NOT a music doc/biopic—at least not in the traditional sense. The film's subheader ("A subjective view upon the past, present and future of modern jazz") indeed hints at this but also seems a bit inadequate in its prefacing. Inside Scofield is of course centered on and around its namesake, but it is neither a summation of the jazz guitarist's work nor a laudatory tribute piece nor (thankfully) a long-form music video peppered with commentary.

What Steineck's film is is many things, all at once. It's Scofield the bandleader and Scofield the band member. It's a travelogue of that band (Combo 66) complete with the nut-and-bolt day-to-day of touring. It's Scofield the guitarist, still infatuated with his instrument, practicing in his hotel room or checking out guitars in a music store.

It's scenes and reminiscences from his career. It's his fellow musician friends and contemporaries hanging out with and chiming in on the man. It's also Scofield riffing on jazz philosophy, both through musings and in action on the bandstand. And, as the subheader implies, it's Scofield as jazz exemplar. Collectively, these things make a sort of constellation—one that, when all the dots are connected, forms an interesting multi-perspective rendering of its subject.

The second important feature of this film is Steineck's unique approach to constructing this constellation. Whereas it's almost a given that a documentary filmmaker who chooses such a subject has an affinity for the musician and his music, it's rare that their touch applies such accompanying creativity. The variety of shots, animated inserts, rhythmically synced cuts, impressionistic fades and overlays that Steineck employs can carry impacts from overt to subliminal. Still, none ever seem to detract from the tone of authenticity essential to a documentary. Key to this is that his creativity often carries an almost zen-like sense of understatement—one that prefers to point towards, rather than delineate.

There's no steadfast sequential life story or timeline adhered to, no completist rigor, no third-person narration save Scofield's occasional disembodied thoughts gently guiding the viewer through the film. It's a slice of his time, a slice of his life, a slice of his perspective and of course, a slice of jazz that Steineck serves up. And perhaps if viewers don't waste time on the usual expectations (ie. waiting to see how they cover this or that period or hoping they concentrate on Scofield's time with Miles Davis, etc.), they might agree that Inside Scofield is all the more refreshing for its general avoidance of predictable documentary fare.

With Steineck's time concluding just as the pandemic was taking hold, the film ends smack in the midst of the uncertainty that prevailed in Scofield's (and everyone else's) life. Similarly, Inside Scofield does leave the viewer feeling as if they know a whole lot more about its subject but, only having gotten "inside" for a certain amount of time, there's also the feeling that there's a whole lot left to know. All this flies because, unlike many other documentarians, it's readily apparent that Steineck never intended for Inside Scofield to be the final word on the guitarist. Scofield is, after all, an active musician whose life and career show no signs of winding down and ending on something of a suspended chord seems fairly appropriate in a way.

In the end, Steineck's film imparts the very experience he had as a filmmaker: that of a fly on the wall who's been given a brief glimpse into a celebrated musician's life and mind. That's the part of his work that's purely documentary. It's Steineck's cinematic touches that make Inside Scofield slightly more deserving of being described as a film first and an interesting documentary second. And aside from finally covering a particularly deserving musician, that's what makes Inside Scofield stand apart from the crowd.

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