If you’ve never heard of Clark Terry before here’s the overview; he was born in dirt poor Missouri in 1920, rose to fame in the late 1940s and for over seventy years has been one of the most recorded and praised jazz musicians of all time. His skill with the trumpet is world-renown; he was mentor to Miles Davis, has a hundreds of songs to his discography and has played with Charlie Barnet, Count Bassie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones (who was a producer of this film). Keep on Keepin’ On is the first documentary by Australian Alan Hicks, himself a drummer who spent time under Terry’s mentor-ship, and after getting its début at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won an audience award, has been gaining a reputation as one of the ‘must-see’ documentaries of 2014.
Over a period of four years we are shown the friendship between Terry, now in his nineties, and Justin Kauflin; a student in his early twenties looking to find his entry into the industry with his phenomenal talent for jazz piano, but struggling due to the fact that he went blind at the age of eight and suffers from crippling stage fright.
At the most basic level, it’s always nice to see a documentary that makes you smile, and its nigh-on guaranteed that Keep on Keepin’ On will do this. Witnessing the relationship between Clark and Justin, two musicians who share a love of music that extends to the deepest vaults of their souls is both charming and quite moving. What really seals the deal, and manages to elevate this into something quite unique is Terry himself, a man of such infectious charm and character that it’s worth the price of admission alone just to spend 90 minutes with him. During the span of four years covered by the film, as Terry ventures deeper into his nineties with his body starting to slowly and painfully fail him, to the point of having both his legs amputated on account of the diabetes he suffers from, he never seems to lose his charm, humour or wit.
The other half covers Justin, as he struggles to break into the industry he loves so much. In one of the film’s most touching moments, as he prepares for a jazz competition with nerves starting to flare up, he opens a parcel and receives Terry’s pair of lucky socks to help him along, with the cheeky bit of advice “If at first you don’t succeed, keep sucking ‘til you suck-a-seed” and, more importantly: “Keep on keepin’ on”. It’s the little moments like this make this such a beautiful documentary, and makes it clear why Hicks wanted to tell this story; it’s obvious that everyone around Clark Terry loves him dearly, and he is only too happy to return the favour. Even Justin’s dog Candy, who will steal the hearts of audiences everywhere, seems to cherish every moment she spends with the old man.
But the joy doesn’t stop there, while the story, characters and overall charm are alone make this worth a watch, what makes this film truly shine is the soundtrack. The collection of jazz pieces that accompany most scenes, which the credits reveal were mostly original pieces composed and performed by Justin, will have your feet tapping, fingers drumming on the arm rests and head bobbing along in that groovy trance that jazz is renowned for, if the film’s a hit it might do for Justin Kauflin what Searching for Sugarman did for Rodriguez. If you play any instrument, this is the kind of experience that makes you want to rush home afterwards and have a jam.
This isn’t the kind of documentary that takes a stand with anything major or life changing to say, it’s a simply tale, beautifully told, with a message that will inspire anyone who loves music and probably resonate especially with those who love jazz. No matter how much or how little you know about Clark Terry, Keep on Keepin’ On will inspire, teach you something and, most importantly, leave you with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
Keep On Keepin’ On is in Australian cinemas from 18 December through Roadshow Films.