July 1, 2000

Take The IDA—Train To Drew's Duke Doc

Los Angeles audiences will get the opportunity to view the rarely seen On the Road with Duke Ellington when the IDA presents the legendary Robert Drew documentary under the stars at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre August 6. In addition to the screening of the film in a newly restored print. courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Academy Film Archive, the evening will also include a live performance of Ellington's music and a tribute to filmmaker Drew.

On the Road with Duke Ellington first aired on NBC in 1968 as part of The Bell Telephone Hour, a venerable series devoted to the performing arts. The film, which follows Ellington on one of his many cross-country tours, treats viewers to performances from the jazz giant and his band, and offers behind-the-scenes glimpses at his creative process and his ruminations on his life and art.

The Bell Telephone Hour, which ran in the 1960s, had regularly broadcast musical performances from television studios. When the producers of Bell decided in 1966 to look into the lives as well as the art of their performers. the first person they contacted was Robert Drew. Drew Associates, a conglomerate of such vérité pioneers as Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, had staked its claim in documentary history with such classics as Primary, The Children Were Watching and The Chair.

"The first year, my organization had scattered." Drew recalls. What (Bell Telephone Hour) did was hire all my people and assign films to each of them-at least six of them, I think. Leacock and Pennebaker were assigned a film on Van Cliburn: Jim Lipscomb was assigned a film on a European family mother, father and son—who were great pianists. They assigned films to each of these people. plus me."

Drew made three films for Bell that year, covering such subjects as the Metropolitan Opera, Gian Carlo Menotti's Spoleto Festival and an international jazz festival in Belgium. Bell Telephone Hour asked Drew to produce 12 hours of programs for the next season: he opted for six. "It had to do with the volume of work and the amount of time in my life," he explains. "So I really thought it through and realized that with 12 hours I would have to have a big staff and be locked in an office, and I wouldn't get out on the stories and I wouldn't be able to edit the films. So I analyzed it and realized that with performance films, I could do six. If they had not been performance films, I could possibly have done four."

In his long career, Drew has profiled individuals from many fields—athletics, politics, education, science—but taking on profiles on artists has proven to be more time efficient. "Frankly, telling a vérité story with a performing artist is easier than telling a story about a person who doesn't perform." he maintains. "You have stretches of performance which carry the story forward, but they also use up time. With a performing artist, you're using his art in a way to help you along, so you're leaning on him, you're leaning on his art a little... more than a
little."

Drew suggested Duke Ellington as a subject for a Bell Telephone program, and the producers agreed. Although Ellington had appeared in many Hollywood shorts, he had never been the subject of a documentary. "I discussed with him what I would like to do—which was to be with him, but not intrude," Drew continues. 'And I didn't want him to be aware of us; I thought he'd forget us, and he did. We were sort of a traveling companion, in a way. Some of the best stuff', of course, was late at night when he was tired and relaxing and letting loose, and we
were drinking a little bit and out came this stuff about his childhood and his girlfriends and so forth."

Drew and his crew, including producer Mike Jackson, associate producer Harry Moses and cinematographers Abbot Mills and Darwin Dean, spent six months on the film, including eight weeks on the road with Duke. The film is full of those unexpected moments that characterize vérité—from the magic of a late-night improvisation on the piano to the poignancy of Ellington at the funeral of his longtime arranger and collaborator, Billy Strayhorn. When Drew approached the editing process with his editors Anne Gilbert and Naomi Mankowitz, he kept in mind that the title and spirit of the film was On the Road with Duke Ellington.

"In the case of Duke," Drew comments, "I just thought that the accumulation of real life and real music as we went along would build somehow, and I think the building is in the revelation of the man. You start off a bit of a stranger with him and part-way through you begin to find out things that characterize him, things that you wouldn't know otherwise. The moment with the young lady at the piano, when he's almost trying to seduce her verbally and humorously and in a gentlemanly fashion. It was amazing that we got that on film because everybody knows that he's a gentleman who appreciates ladies, and you can say that and show it in still pictures, but there it was. It was moments like that that I look for and treasure."

One element about the film that is curious is the use of a narrator, given that Drew himself once said, "Find stories that can be told through characters and action; let those stories tell themselves, and cut the narration way down." He explains that in certain cases in his work, narration is necessary to "service the story that's being shown." "When it came to Duke Ellington, or when it came to the whole series I did for Bell Telephone on artists of various kinds, they were documentaries with dramatic elements, so I thought it was necessary to tell people where they were and what was going on and who was who," he says. "So in Duke, I'm using service narration, whereas the picture is pretty much telling the story, at least within sequence. But linking them up requires service narration."

On the Road with Duke Ellington aired again in 1974 on PBS, following Ellington's death. For the rebroadcast, Drew added extra lines of narration at the beginning and end and about three minutes of Ellington on piano at the end. Plans for a broadcast on HBO as part of the 1999 Ellington Centennial celebrations did not materialize, but the film was screened at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, and will unspool this August in Los Angeles.

 

Thomas White is Associate Editor of International Documentary.

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