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Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery


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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.
Pat Martino
Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery
Sixteen Films

Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery is a running commentary about a man, his music, his friends and family, and his philosophy of life. The man is living legend and jazz guitarist, Pat Martino. The film could be thought of as an intimate journey with Martino on the road of life. However, its emphasis is on his brain aneurysm, surgery, memory loss, and the remarkable recovery of his guitar-playing ability. It is about a true paradox well known to his fans: a great jazz musician suffers total amnesia, and cannot even recall that he ever played the guitar. Yet he recovers his playing ability to the point where most critics and top guitar players consider him at least as good as, if not better than he was during his early years, when he was an acknowledged prodigy. Consider that the music is jazz, so there is no question of rote mechanics here. The music has to be in the blood; it must be understood intuitively and its meaning grasped. How can that be, when a large chunk of the brain, a part that is essential for memory, is removed in emergency surgery? This is the conundrum that propels this film.

Martino Unstrung: A Brain Mystery was initiated through conversations between two friends in England: film director Ian Knox and neuropsychologist Paul Broks. Knox, a jazz fan and sometime musician himself had always loved Martino's music. When he discussed Martino's recovery with Broks, the latter became fascinated with the details of Martino's aneurysm, surgery, and recovery. Lights went on, and they decided to make a film about Martino, with Broks playing himself as an intrepid researcher such as one might encounter on the Discovery Channel. Knox approached Martino about the film when the guitarist was doing one of his frequent gigs at Ronnie Scott's club in London. The magic of the motion picture industry and funding from the Wellcome Trust allowed this film to be made on two continents, with a film crew and a host of short interviews in various locales, within a year or two of its conception.

I am close friends with Martino, and therefore this film is personal to me, yet I believe it has universal significance and will appeal to a wide audience beyond the jazz community. I've had the honor and pleasure of knowing Martino as his friend and journalist ever since I heard him perform at the then iconic and now defunct Zanzibar Blue nightclub in 2003. I know the story of his aneurysm. I know firsthand his brilliance as both a musician and an intellect. At the same time, I know his struggle to recall the simplest details of his life, and the sense he has made of his memory deficit by focusing on the meaning of the here-and-now. I also know of his universal love as it has manifested for me and others. So, what I am going to write is not a detached, unbiased analysis of a film, but an interpretation of that film influenced by my personal experience of the film's protagonist. However, I do hope I can detach sufficiently that I can present a view of the film that will be of value to the reader.

First of all, let me give a brief summary of the plot, such as there can be one in a film which covers so much territory. Neuropsychologist Paul Broks comes with an associate to Martino's home in South Philadelphia to interview and evaluate Martino regarding his memory loss. (Martino plays himself, as do all the people in the film, and so the movie is therefore to be classified as a documentary, although it has the feel of a dramatic story.) While together, Martino, his wife Ayako, and Broks travel out and about to the local neighborhood as well as the New Jersey Shore, New York City, and Los Angeles. They elucidate the phenomenon that is Martino by speaking with his ex-wife, the fashion model Geri Taber; his agent, Joe Donofrio; his musical cohorts Delmar Brown, Red Holloway, Les Paul, John Patitucci, Corlos Santana, Eric Alexander, John Mulhearn, Pete Townshend and others; plus an old friend, actor Joe Pesci, as well as Blue Note recording executive, Bruce Lundvall, and an anonymous man on the street in Harlem who confirms for Pat the erstwhile location of Small's Paradise, the famous Harlem jazz club where he got his start.

We are also introduced to Martino's surgeon, Dr. Fred Simeone. We meet up with him, strangely enough, in a museum of fabulous antique cars that Simeone created in a warehouse in Philadelphia. This off-center way of introducing a distinguished physician reflects the intimate, personal dimension of the film and its somewhat irreverent, fanciful way of capturing all the angles of the story. The film is thus rich with personal lore, striking locales, and wide-angle shots of cities that give it a feeling of the shifting landscapes in which the biography takes place.

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.

It also has a profound message of renewal for those recovering from a serious medical condition. Although I claim in this instance to be neither a neutral observer nor a seasoned film critic, I would, with all due humility, give the film five stars and a "don't miss" recommendation. It is a must see for jazz fans as well as those interested in psychology and neuroscience, and the general public will also find it fascinating and informative. Furthermore, anyone who has suffered a serious setback in life or who has had a severe medical condition will find in this film inspiration, hope, and, above all, "the unbearable lightness of being."

Film Credits: Ian Knox: writer, director, producer, editor, photography; Paul Broks; writer; Jonathan Morris: editor; Nyika Jancso: editor, photography; Rebecca O'Brien: executive producer; Pat Martino: music; Milton Mermikides: music.

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