Art Doc of the Week | Jaco

The symbiotic relationship between mental illness and creativity is age-old; conversations around that relationship range from facile to exploitative. Occasionally you stumble over one that is both sympathetic and insightful. Jaco, about the life and trailblazing career of the late, revolutionary bassist Jaco Pastorius, falls into that last category.

Co-directed by Stephen Kijak and Paul Marchand, and produced by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo (whose unabashed fanboy enthusiasm when interviewed on camera about his idol Pastorius is a joy to witness,) the documentary is broken into chapters headed by years and geographical locations (“1958 South Florida;” “1983 or 84 Manhattan”). Each chapter examines formative moments in Pastorius’ personal life and career, connecting the dots between the two while also sketching in the larger social, political and music world backdrop. Early in the film, we hear a speaker describe the American music industry of the mid 1970s as such: “Everybody wore [eccentricity] as a badge. It was a war cry, to be different.  Musicians owned the music business.” That assessment might be a bit naïve and romantic, but it explains something of how the culture of the music industry existed before the bean counters had fully taken it over – and before bean counter mentality also defined the musicians themselves.

In mapping out the Jaco Pastorius story, directors Kijak and Marchand use stock documentary tools of home movies, family photos, performance footage, and interviews with family and friends conducted especially for the film. Those interviews include Trujillo, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Bootsy Collins, Flea, and more. And the directors are shrewd enough to know that effectively capturing the shifting eras being covered means going beyond just focusing on the ways Pastorius interacted with and was shaped by culture. To that end, an extended 1972 performance clip of blue-eyed soul man Wayne Cochran almost singes the screen.  It’s used to discuss the rough and tumble world of the chitlin’ circuit where young Pastorius cutting his music teeth, and to outline the nuances of how race and music artistry bobbed and weaved around each other decades ago, shaping Pastorius’ art and worldview.

But it is, of course, Pastorius’ story being told – and it would seem too “Hollywood” if it weren’t so well documented and verified. Born to a musician dad and a housewife mom who split when he was a boy, Pastorius grew up in South Florida where the heterogeneous music scene fed his own precocious talent, and would set the stage for his being able to masterfully play any style, and genre of music. The early years of his career made it apparent to anyone who heard him that he was a rare talent, but few could have predicted that he’d revolutionize bass playing the way he did. “He’s our Hendrix,” says Juan Alderete (The Mars Volta) at one point in the film. The film then moves at a dizzying pace, as if trying to matching the rate at which his own career moved as he played in assorted bands (including a dazzling stint as part of seminal jazz collective Weather Report), honed his style, collaborated with the greats of the day across genre, and thoroughly rewrote the rules and possibilities of bass playing.

Creeping up in the mix, though, was a bipolar disorder that would eventually lay waste to his career, and have him homeless and sleeping in parks, playing his instrument for pocket change on the streets.  It’s painful to witness the decline, and the anguish on the faces of friends and family who couldn’t save him. One philosophical soul notes that the very same chemical imbalance that wreaked havoc on his life may likely have been what fueled his art, gave him the vision he had, and the fearlessness to pursue it. It’s not a new insight, but it is a tricky one to put forth without seeming to romanticize the disorder. But it’s clear from the start of the film that no one is doing that.

Moments after the opening credits, the film shows a 1983 clip of Jaco being interviewed by fellow musician Jerry Jemmot, who is singing Jaco’s praises – touting his dexterity on the bass, the effortlessness with which he mastered multiple genres. Pastorius sits next to him, weathered, with a palpable sadness about him. He replies to Jemmot’s praise with a shy smile before blurting, “Then gimme a gig!” The film then cuts to present-day Jemmot who looks into the camera with incredulousness and says, “Ironically, at that point he couldn’t get a gig. What drove him to this point? It was all over him. You could see it, that he was a man who had trouble.” The film goes back one more time to the ’83 clip, in which the camera moves in for a close-up on Jaco’s face, and you can all but see the demons play across it. No one’s romanticizing his struggle.

Image courtesy of Jaco Pastorius website.


Previously on Art Doc of the Week: