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Hargrove: Film Review

Hargrove gives audiences a snapshot into the life of a famous jazz musician while speaking more broadly about societal issues.

Hargrove, like a great jazz performance, accomplishes several different things at once. Not only does the film capture the life and personality of Roy Hargrove, one of the greatest jazz musicians of the modern era, but it also speaks to broader issues surrounding exploitation in the music industry and the importance of spirituality. In her directorial debut, Eliane Henri, who knew Hargrove since childhood, crafts an incredibly personal documentary about Hargrove. Because of the previous connection she had with the musician, Henri goes beyond the surface level biographical information into something almost transcendent, showing a side of Hargrove that was rarely seen by anyone except those he was closest to. Her camera details the most intimate, human moments from Hargrove while documenting his final tour in 2018, before he passed away after ongoing kidney problems on November 2, 2018. 

The most touching moments are not the musical performances (though they are powerful). They are not other musicians and members of Hargrove’s band talking about the late trumpeter. Instead, the sweetest moments come from Hargrove himself, with Henri capturing his life on the road, him buying sneakers, and talking about ice cream. She uses unique camera angles, like shooting his trumpet-playing seemingly from the perspective of one of his Air Jordans, to invite us into the life of a touching, hilarious, brilliant person, not just a musician.

While Henri accomplishes the task of getting audiences to sympathize with Hargrove, she also introduces broader issues in the music industry. A key portion of the film is dedicated to Hargrove’s complicated relationship with his manager, Larry “Ragman” Clothier. In an extended sequence featuring a heated argument between Hargrove and Clothier, Henri brings to the forefront the issue of race relations and the continuing problem of exploitation in the music industry. The film does not dwell on this sublot too long. If it did, the real message of Hargrove’s life and impact would have been drowned out. Instead, Henri spends just enough time to raise awareness to these ongoing complications, before returning to the heart and soul of her story: Hargrove and the power of music.

Hargrove (Cinema Columbus Film Festival)

At the center of the film is the music, more specifically the power of music. Though we do see snippets of several Hargrove performances, hearing Hargrove discuss his musical philosophy is arguably even more powerful. Furthermore, Hargrove’s spiritual journey connects with his love for the music. Towards the end of the film, Hargrove outlines his beliefs, saying “Let God handle it.” He practiced elements of Buddhism and saw performing as something close to the divine. With that mindset, he always prioritized the music, even at the detriment of his own health. Some of the more moving moments come when Hargrove discusses his health issues, clearly wanting to get back to talking about his true love, jazz. The documentary dissects even the most personal aspects of Hargrove’s life and identifies his main goal as something more transcendent than fame or success.

The best moments are those times where the camera crew feel invisible, where the audience sees a firsthand glimpse into the life of a jazz musician. Unfortunately, some of these moments are often undercut by a more traditional “talking heads” approach to documentary filmmaking. Though it is good to hear the perspective from friends and collaborators such as Questlove and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and bandmates like Frank Lacy (who does deliver some funny and poignant one-liners), it is easy to miss Hargrove’s presence when he is not on screen. However, the best, most memorable moments in the movie involving Hargrove drown out the potential storytelling problems.

Hargrove is a touching documentary. It moves with the frenetic energy of one of Hargrove’s own performances, bouncing between stories about his life, his music, and his personal struggles. A great jazz concert can come with some imperfections, but those imperfections are often what makes the music so special. Similarly, the film may not get everything right, but that’s why it ultimately works. It hits all the right notes when it needs to, providing a sweet swan song to one of jazz’s most influential icons

Hargrove was screened at the Cinema Columbus Film Festival on April 26, 2023.

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