Movie Magazine International

Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog

USA - 1998

Movie Review By Heather Clisby

Director Don McGlynn has made an honest collage reflecting the complex life of one of the finest bass players of our time. After nine years in the making, the result is "Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog", a film that uncovers a little well-known fact, that Mingus was primarily a genius composer whose innovations challenged fellow musicians to reach for new heights.

Born to a black father and a white mother, Mingus faced racism from all sides. Too dark to be white and too light to be black, Mingus never felt he belonged anywhere and, as a result, developed a fiery disposition that fueled his musical passion.

Using a non-linear style, McGlynn explores Mingus's life, both professional and private, using archival footage, old radio broadcasts, previously unseen photographs, composition tapes and numerous interviews with former colleagues and family members. The most telling snippets come from his first wife, Celia Mingus Zanetz, and his widow, Sue Mingus, who also co-produced the film; they are unified in their admiration for the man and knowledgeable jazz fans in their own right.

In one memorable exchange, Celia recalls falling asleep in his arms, only to be re-awakened by Mingus absentmindedly playing her left arm like his instrument: "Hey," Sue says, laughing, "he never did that to me" and Celia points out, "Well maybe, you just never woke up."

Blending jazz and classical styles as early as his teen years, Mingus's autonomous outlook shaped his art. "He reflected exactly who he was in his music," says trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, "and was not victimized by style."

Indeed, Mingus was paradoxical; both tender and volatile, his anger could fire up at a moment's notice. As tenor saxophonist Joe Handy observed, "His personality ran the color spectrum."

This did not serve him well playing under Duke Ellington. Eventually, Mingus was kicked out but continued to cite Ellington as his primary musical influence.

Mingus went on to collaborations with Lionel Hampton and Charlie Parker but in 1967, the onset of rock and roll pushed Mingus out. For two years, he left the music scene completely, became a photographer, made scenes, went crazy and was briefly committed to Mt. Sinai for psychiatric counseling. He came back, of course, and Mingus is now a must for music students and fans alike. Score one for the Underdog.

© 1998 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 6/10/98

"Movie Magazine International" Movie Review Index

"Movie Magazine International" Home Page