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).