Life is Jazz
A Fractured Mind’s Inner Searching
Some documentaries lay out the facts of their subject, using the camera as a kind of tool with which to unearth the truth from a pile of conflicting bits of information. Other documentaries, usually with a trickier subject, embrace the conflicted nature of the truth, seeking to offer their audience a surreal experience. As much a tone poem as it is a biography of Melbourne jazz musician Simon Kent, Bigly Yellow adopts the latter approach, telling the life of its tortured subject through musical interludes and visual distortion. It’s a celebration of a life lived through jazz.
Directors Nigel Deans and Nubar Ghazarian have been capturing Simon’s life on camera for two decades. A jazz prodigy at the age of 15, the film begins when he is a much older man, reflecting on a life largely defined by music and mental illness. The approach and timespan gives the documentary practically unparalleled insight into Simon, documenting his manic episodes and gigs in the darker nightclubs of Melbourne’s jazz scene. Included by his side is his brother, drummer Dylan Kent and guitarist Roy Voogd, whose dry humour adds levity in contrast to Simon’s impassioned approach to life.
The documentary fittingly includes long musical interludes in which the camera is either fixed and blankly observing a band in the throes of a jam, or losing itself with the music, visually dancing, awash in bright neon colours. These sequences are grounded by the interviews with Simon, his band mates, and, in some of the film’s most poignant scenes, elucidating comments from Simon’s mother, the poet Tana McCarthy. Tana’s comments are a treasure trove of insight into childhood pressures (Simon was ‘all of a sudden feeling like he was a fake’), mental illness (she warns against the dangers of ‘too much inner searching’) and a range of other aspects of a life lived on the fringes of brilliance and success.
What it all amounts to is a tender and intimate portrait of a man’s career offset by the unexpected twists and turns in his own mind. His story is a universal one beautifully brought to life by striking visuals and a moody soundtrack. Bigly Yellow is deeply felt by its creators and, in turn, by the audience, too.
Tom Bensley - Critic
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley and read his film reviews at Hunter and Bligh.
Bigly Yellow - 62 minutes
In this age of $3,000 4-K quality cameras, it’s pretty easy for a filmmaker of any ability to shoot eye-catching video of a concert or behind-the-scenes footage. It is still a rare treat, however, when a filmmaker is able to immerse you in the world of the subject, capturing the vibe of the artist at all times - and reflecting that tone in the video, editing and often most importantly, the pacing of the project. The latest brilliant and soulful example is “Bigly Yellow,”by Australian directors Nigel Deans and Nubar Ghazarian. They weave together beautifully shot concert and rehearsal footage with interviews and behind-the-scenes shots that paint an honest and powerful portrait of Jazz musician Simon Kent.
While you can tell the directors are in awe of Kent’s immense talent, they are not afraid to show the artist’s faults, foibles and challenges. This produces a range of emotions in the audience and Deans and Ghazarian are clever to balance the highs and lows with stunning music sequences that ebb and flow and are allowed to meander and explore. We’re left with that exciting sense of discovery that is at the heart of Jazz music.
Just like the music it captures, Bigly Yellow is raw, unpredictable and hypnotic.
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