“All musicians should get down on their knees one day to thank Duke Ellington.”
Duke Ellington has not exactly been a stranger to film. His music has been used frequently in films, of course, but he also appeared in them, usually as himself, throughout his career. The earliest one was 1929’s Black and Tan, and that was followed by about a dozen others during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Thereafter, the appearances were mainly in films dedicated to the man himself. In 1974, the year that he died, On the Road with Duke Ellington was released. The portrait was an unobtrusive yet revealing look at the man’s life on the road with his band, shot six years before his death, and showing him performing, composing, and sharing some of his thoughts about his life and career. Behind the camera was Robert Drew, well known for thoughtful documentary films that tell their stories through the actions of their principal characters rather than through third-party interviews and stock footage.
On the Road with Duke Ellington is certainly one of Robert Drew’s finest efforts, but more importantly, it is perhaps the finest film portrait of Duke Ellington that we have. By allowing Ellington’s daily routine to be the focus, we are provided with a wonderful opportunity to be flies on the wall. We get to see him and his band in action of course, playing such favourites as “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It’s interesting that Ellington didn’t seem to resent having to play the old numbers so often, even though, as the film’s intermittent narration comments, many felt sorry to see him have to do so when they knew how many other facets there were to his newer compositions. The most interesting sections of the film deal with Duke’s approach to composing a new piece that he planned to play at a ceremony in which he was granted one of his many honorary degrees. To see him then brief his band just before the event on how their accompaniment should work, since he didn’t have the time to commit the piece to paper, never mind develop an arrangement for his band, is a unique moment in itself. The fact that the piece is never written down or recorded, and was then played once live and probably never played again, and that this was not uncommon for Ellington, seems almost mind-boggling when one imagines how hard it is to compose any acceptable piece of music, never mind a good one that just becomes a virtual throw-away. The film is full of moments like these, as well as also revealing a little of Duke’s personal habits away from the piano. For example, Ellington was often described as being on tour with his band for the last 43 years of his life. Living in hotels as he frequently did, he usually started his day with one substantial meal consisting of steak and potato with hot water to drink, since he was never really sure whether the rest of the day would allow for him to eat properly. The mix of personal and professional insights that this film delivers, much of it through Ellington’s own words make it a winner.
Would that the disc were as much a winner. It’s one of a series of DVDs from a company called Docurama, which focuses on documentaries. On the Road with Duke Ellington is a full frame release in accord with its original television presentation. The image is watchable, but that’s about the best one can say for it. I suspect the existing source material is at much at fault here as anything, but the transfer is not very pleasing. The film lacks sharpness with speckling throughout, and the image is constantly soft-looking with only fair contrast. Blacks are variable in deepness and shadow detail is not great. About the best one can say is that edge enhancement is not an issue, although maybe it should have been. (Did I say that?) The sound is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, which is bland at best. A photo gallery and a short biography of Duke Ellington are the main supplements worth mentioning.
If you’re a Duke Ellington fan, you’ll want to have this despite the disc’s deficiencies. For others, if you have the chance to rent this, by all means do so. Given the disc’s subject matter, the 60-minute length is time well spent.