The story of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, one of the last major innovators in American music, will be told through the stories of people he influenced in the next documentary from the director-writer of Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?).
Director-writer-producer John Scheinfeld — whose credits include The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of “Smile” with David Leaf — began pre-production on the film in November. Spencer Proffer is producing through his Meteor 17 company; longtime music video executive John Beug and Concord Music Group managing director Scott Pascucci are also producers.
“He was an artist whose work resonated with fans from all walks of life — the architect Frank Gehry, Clint Eastwood, Bono, Philip Glass, Alicia Keys, Bill Clinton — and that fascinated me: What is it about this music that touches people so deeply?” says Scheinfeld, whose goal is to humanize instead of glorify Coltrane.
“Most of the books attempt to analyze his music,” Scheinfeld added. “We’ll make the film different by showing the impact the music made. He’s like the Beatles in that he never repeated himself; he found what worked and moved on. He had a restless creativity, and that, to me, is quite admirable.”
Proffer, a music and film producer who brought Coltrane’s son onboard as a consultant in February 2012, and Scheinfeld intend to have the film ready by the end of 2015 for an unveiling on the film-festival circuit in 2016, after which they will sell to a theatrical distributor.
Coltrane, born in 1926 in North Carolina, had his breakout in Miles Davis‘ quintet in the late-1950s and in partnership with Thelonious Monk. Between 1957 and his death at age 40 in 1967, he released nearly two dozen albums as a leader, among them the genre landmarks A Love Supreme, Giant Steps and Live at the Village Vanguard.
Music rights have been cleared for more than 90 percent of his recorded music; Coltrane’s best-known work is owned by Universal Music Group (Impulse and Blue Note labels), Concord Music Group (Prestige) and Warner Music Group (Atlantic Records).
“Long-term relationships,” Proffer says of the project securing vital music rights, “and the desire of the labels to get into a project that’s good for the catalogs.”
Despite an abundance of recorded material, the visuals are more challenging. He did only one American television performance as a leader: one with Davis on CBS and only three or four in Europe. The Coltrane family is providing home movies and unreleased audio; collectors are being contacted as well.
“The John Coltrane story is simple,” says Ravi Coltrane, who was 2 when his father died. “He worked his ass off, going to gigs and then coming home to practice. [Proffer and Scheinfled’s] hearts are in the right place. They’re film people, not jazz people, so I think it allows for a fresh take. What excites me is how this one artist affected so much outside the realm of music. It’s about vision and discipline.”
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.