Film documentarian Robert Mugge has always been captivated by the stories of music, particularly those of Al Green, Ruben Blades, the legendary 2010 rhythm and blues cruise, and the post-Katrina musicians of New Orleans.
In 1986, he produced a now iconic film about Sonny Rollins titled “Saxophone Colossus.” At the date of this writing, after much effort and many difficult challenges, Mugge has just re-released it as a digitally remastered movie. It remains the definitive story of the tenor sax player who has been hailed as an improvisation genius.
What was your motivation for re-releasing this 1986 film?
All artists want their work available as widely as possible, and for as long as possible. Since I completed SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS more than three decades ago, it has been shown in theaters, broadcast over television and distributed on video around the world. In the U.S. alone, the film has had four previous home video releases. But the fifth time is the charm, because MVD Visual is releasing it worldwide on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats (internet streaming and downloading).
What special new material has been added as a bonus? Is there printed material accompanying the DVD?
The Blu-ray and DVD bonus features include my own illustrated video commentary on the making of the film, as well as audio versions of two songs from the film. There are no print materials.
Did you update any information from the original film?
No, the structure and content of the film have not been altered in any way.
What did you do to the film itself to be suitable for release?
A major remastering effort was needed in order to bring the film into the digital age.
First, my original film and audio masters were given a 4K transfer to HD video at Technicolor in Montreal. After that, I spent a great deal of time color-correcting every shot in the film, replacing older film titles with new HD video ones, and using scenes from the remastered film to illustrate my commentary on the original project. Finally, I worked with MVD package designers, authoring technicians and publicists to get all versions of the film ready for this new release.
Do you feel there is a resurgence in Sonny Rollins’ popularity?
I’m not really the person to answer such questions, but I know that a huge number of older fans have stuck with Sonny, even as newer generations are being introduced to him. I only hope the film we made together will continue to play at least a small part in that process.
What is the essence of Sonny that you wish to convey through this film?
Sonny’s discipline, spirituality, and extraordinary creativity.
How did you come to make the original film in 1986; how did you get connected with Sonny?
Philadelphia-based jazz writer Francis Davis is a longtime friend, and in early 1986, he told me he had just interviewed Sonny Rollins. During that interview, Francis learned that a Japanese symphony orchestra in Tokyo had commissioned Sonny to write a new composition for tenor saxophone and orchestra, and that Sonny and the orchestra planned to premiere the piece in Tokyo that coming May.
This was not long after I had completed three films in a row for Britain’s new Channel 4 Television (BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, and THE RETURN OF RUBÉN BLADES) and was looking for another subject I could propose to them.
I also was interested in producing a film about musical improvisation, and Sonny already was widely considered the greatest living jazz improviser. At the same time, I’d long wished cameras had been present for the premieres of ambitious jazz works including Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
Maybe this new piece of Sonny’s would come to be revered in the same way, and maybe it would not. But considering Sonny’s importance to jazz history, I felt personally obligated to try and document whatever he was now creating. With that in mind, I asked Francis if he would mention my interest to Sonny and Lucille, and he reported back that they were open to the idea.
Fortunately for me, Lucille believed that Sonny was playing the best of his life, and she welcomed additional documentation that would demonstrate that fact. So, the three of us set out to make a film that would capture not only the orchestral premiere in Japan, but as many sides as possible of Sonny and his music.
What was it like working with him then?
Sonny and his late wife Lucille are among the nicest, smartest and most generous people with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of working. Sonny, of course, also happens to be one of the greatest artists in American musical history. Naturally, this was a dream project for me.
What about the heel-breaking debacle and how he continued playing his sax while injured?
As you know, while my crew and I were filming an outdoor Sonny Rollins performance on a rock stage at Opus 40 in Saugerties, New York, Sonny suddenly leaped from the front of the stage and wound up breaking his heel (see photo below). It’s an amazing moment, and people should see the film to find out why he jumped and what else happened when he did. Certainly, it’s a pivotal moment in the film.
Will the film be released in theaters, on Netflix, etc.?
The film’s primary time in theaters and on television around the world came in the mid and late 1980s.
This latest round of distribution involves the worldwide release of the remastered film on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats. SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS should be available from a wide range of online retailers, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.
What do you hope people get from seeing this film?
A further appreciation of the art, life and personality of the great Sonny Rollins.
To see Robert Mugge discussing this film please visit https://vimeo.com/209277353.
All photos courtesy of and with permission from Robert Mugge.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017