Late last year, Damien Chazelle’s much-hyped musical La La Land brought us the story of two wide-eyed Hollywood hipsters falling in and out of love amidst what some might call “white people problems.” While Mia agonizes over trying to catch an acting break, Seb obsesses over his jazz fetish and aspires to save it. But jazz doesn’t need saving – it simply needs its stories to be told. Swedish director Kasper Collin seeks to do just that with the documentary I Called Him Morgan, the true-life tale of star-crossed lovers, pulled together against the backdrop of the 1960s New York jazz scene. It’s a tragic love story with two fascinating central characters, jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan and his longtime partner Helen. Through a series of interviews, audio recordings, archival footage, photography and inspired reenactments, Collin presents the bittersweet tale of two nearly forgotten jazz figures.
Lee Morgan was a musical prodigy, bursting onto the scene playing trumpet alongside Dizzy Gillespie, one of the greatest jazz trumpet players of all time. Lee was just 17 then. Band members recall how he challenged Dizzy with his performances and became a star. From there, his career had nowhere to go but up. The “hard bop” musician started recording with Blue Note Records in 1956, contributed to John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” album and headlined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He was one of the most prolific Blue Note artists and became politically active in the last two years of his life until his untimely death in 1972.
Though he died at the young age of 33, his story is pieced together through intimate interviews with close friends, including bandmates Wayne Shorter, Jymie Merritt, Bennie Maupin and Billy Harper. Collin said that once he started meeting Lee’s friends, many of them wanted to talk immediately about the last few years of his life and about Helen’s important influence on him. Though she was torn by jealousy over a new girlfriend, most of Lee’s friends remember her with love. We hear Helen’s own voice recount her story through an interview recorded by retired radio announcer Larry Reni Thomas just one month shy of her death in 1996. A dusty Sony tape deck appears as we hear her incredibly candid and haunting voice explain her version of events leading up to the night she killed her common-law husband.
A product of a rough childhood (she bore two children at the age of 13 and 14, respectively), Helen admits in her shrill yet clever tone, “I will not sit here and tell you that I was nice because I was not. I would cut you. I was sharp. I looked out for me.” Helen remade herself in New York City, gaining a circle of friends from all walks of artistic life. She met Lee when he was heavily addicted to heroin, which impeded his budding career. She called him Morgan (she didn’t like the name Lee) and basically saved his life, nursing him back to health and helping him get back on his feet. Though she was 12 years older than him, she supported him as a friend, lover, manager and even mother figure until she killed him in a fit of passionate rage, in a jazz nightclub no less.
Intimate interviews with Lee’s and Helen’s inner circle help shape the backbone of the film’s narrative. Simple but well-framed talking head shots are accompanied by archival photographs and found footage. In some scenes, interviewees view and discuss old photographs from the archives of Francis Wolff, one of the founders of Blue Note Records, and Val Wilmer, a music photographer who met Lee on several occasions. Collin and editor Eva Hillström combed through hundreds of photographs to create photo sequences illustrating key moments in the couple’s lives.
Collin is no stranger to jazz or documentaries. His 2006 feature debut My Name is Albert Ayler featured the American avant-garde jazz saxophonist. In Morgan, he expertly weaves jazz history with personal stories through remarkable photography and captivating tape from Helen’s interview with Larry Reni Thomas. The film lights up each time her crackling voice returns. Collin wanted to visually recreate scenes that matched the “poetic strength” in her voice. He enlisted the help of cinematographer Bradford Young (who lensed Selma and was nominated for an Oscar for on Arrival sharp) to produce grainy, film-footage scenes such as Helen’s parties and a snowy New York City using Bolex cameras and 16mm.
Collin edited the film over a three-year period with editors Hanna Lejonqvist, Eva Hillström and Dino Jonsäter. Rich soundscapes produced by Mario Adamson and Jan Alvermark add another layer of complexity that underscore the importance of music in this film. Jazz tunes, many of which are Lee’s recordings, accompany the moods of each sequence, changing tempo as events unfold onscreen. Shots of harsh New York City blizzards and photographs of Lee performing onstage, juxtaposed with the sounds of wind, snow, bar ambience, narration and music provide an unnerving aural preface leading to the young musician’s untimely death.
The only thing missing would be more from Lee himself, or perhaps more on his childhood prior to his life as an artist and his personal perspective on his career, drug addiction and relationships toward the later years of his life. We do hear bits from an old interview, but we don’t hear enough from him as we do from Helen. And what we do hear from Helen we could use more of. One wonders how much more tape is left of Thomas’ interview with her, and if she spoke more on her jealousy and her success in reforming her life through the church after getting out of prison.
I Called Him Morgan is a delicately crafted view of two tortured but connected souls. Instead of framing Lee and Helen as distant figures of the past, Collin delves deep into their characters to try and understand their stories, addressing their mistakes while acknowledging their contributions to the American jazz tradition. We hear Helen’s voice more than we do Lee in this film, but perhaps that’s because we hear his music all throughout. As one bandmate recalls, Lee had the innate ability to tell his story through music. Perhaps we should let the music speak for itself.