Shot over the course of almost five years by debut director Alan Hicks, Keep On Keepin’ On pitches a genuinely heartwarming tale about positivity in the face of adversity, and the many divides—racial, cultural, generational—that music can help bridge. It’s ostensibly a biopic of legendary, 93-year-old jazz trumpeter Clark Terry told via his mentorship of an affable, mid-20s piano prodigy stricken with debilitating nerves and near-complete blindness, but it quietly reveals itself to be so much more: an affectionate valentine to the tenacity of the human spirit which never once dips over into the maudlin.
Winner of both the Best New Documentary Director and Audience Award prizes at the Tribecca Film Festival, Keep On Keepin’ On arrives on the heels of two of the most lauded nonfiction music films of the past decade—2012’s Searching For Sugar Man and last year’s Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom—but the music documentaries Hicks’ movie most recalls, and does so favorably, are Thunder Soul and Standing in the Shadow of Motown. These two films gave a deserving spotlight to talents who labored too long in relative anonymity, all the while underscoring the value and importance of passing along lifetimes of music knowledge and industry experience.
In the case of Terry—bedridden due to complications from diabetes during much of the time we see him, but never lacking in spirit—the main vessel for his fount of knowledge is Justin Kauflin, the aforementioned prodigy who he met as part of an outreach class he taught. Separated by more than six decades, they’re still a great match: though Kauflin has been severely limited in vision since he was a toddler, the result of a rare congenital disorder, his mother recalls how without irony he lamented the fact that he didn’t have any great suffering to inform his love and sense of the blues; Terry, meanwhile, a 2010 Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award winner, is hailed by peers and historians as championing an indefatigably happy, improvisational skill and sound.
Hicks frames his story with reverence and respect for jazz (especially considering Terry was a mentor for none other than Miles Davis), but avoids tumbling down a rabbit hole of overly referential jargon or “checklisting,” which typically doom a lot of well-meaning biographies with esoteric or erudite distractions. Arturo Sandoval, Herbie Hancock and Bill Cosby offer up brief, front-loaded testimonials but don’t overwhelm the proceedings; Quincy Jones (a student of Terry’s and also a producer on the movie) is a more integrated presence, but skillfully interwoven throughout. In short, this is a movie that one need not be a jazz fan at all to enjoy.
It helps, too, that Keep On Keepin’ On doesn’t veer explicitly into a more direct conversation about race. Hicks certainly honors the groundbreaking nature of some of Terry’s accomplishments (he was the first African-American staff musician at NBC, as part of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), and touches briefly on the undoubtedly despicable prejudice he had to endure during the heyday of his career, but Keep On Keepin’ On largely hovers above the Civil Rights Era, existing in some sort of pan-racial strata. Such a broader exploration of Terry’s life contextualized amongst his contemporaries could have been a completely worthy directorial choice, but it would be a very different film. Instead, Hicks’s tack keeps the intimacy of Keep On Keepin’ On intact and potently bottled, focusing on the bond between mentor and mentee, between this generation and a generation on its way out, so that the feeling one has watching the scenes of Terry and Kauflin (who is biracial, for what it’s worth) sharing their love of old jazz standards is what lingers longest after the film is over.
Director: Alan Hicks
Starring: Clark Terry, Justin Kauflin
Release Date: September 19 (Los Angeles); October 3 (New York, Washington D.C., and select California cities); October 17 (Chicago). Check the website for further dates and times.
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.