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Film Review: 'Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes' sets an iconic career to a propulsive beat

A still from the documentary film 'MAX ROACH: THE DRUM ALSO WALTZES'
A still from the documentary film 'MAX ROACH: THE DRUM ALSO WALTZES'

In a short piece of archival footage that opens Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, an insightful new documentary, an interviewer asks the legendary drummer if he uses his music as a weapon. “Sometimes the music is used to make people feel happy and joy,” Roach replies. “But on some occasions we do use the music as a weapon against man’s inhumanity towards man.”

The framing of this moment is clearly meant to emphasize Roach’s commitment to the civil rights movement and the cause of social justice, but the full quote should not be ignored. Alongside the passionate advocacy and protest expressed in works like We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite or his solo performance accompanying Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” the pioneering drummer never lost sight of the celebratory spirit of the music.

Roach’s lifelong love for the drums is evident at the outset, as he recalls practicing for hours on end as a child, using his bed as a drum stool, until the neighbors knocked on the door to complain. Co-directors Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro take a linear, cradle-to-grave approach to the subject. The film — which has its Philly premiere this Friday in Clark Park as part of cinéSPEAK’s Under the Stars series, in partnership with Ars Nova Workshop and WRTI — will air this fall on PBS’ American Masters. Its format will be familiar to frequent viewers of that series, a brisk blend of talking-head interviews and archival footage tracing a straightforward narrative arc through the course of Roach’s notable life.

Sam Pollard, one of the two directors of 'Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes'
LaMont Hamilton
Sam Pollard, one of the two directors of 'Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes'

The Drum Also Waltzes is the culmination of a long-dormant passion project for Pollard and Shapiro. Both separately embarked on their own profiles of Roach in the mid-1980s before shelving the projects for a number of years. They’ve pooled their resources to revive the film in recent years, leading to the inclusion of previously unseen interviews with Roach and Abbey Lincoln as well as captivating rehearsal footage of Roach’s percussion ensemble M’Boom in its prime.

Roach’s story is amenable to a chapter-by-chapter telling: his early life; his contributions to the bebop movement; the quintet with Clifford Brown; his battles with addiction; his marriage to Abbey Lincoln, and the influential political statement of We Insist!; the innovations of M’Boom; his experiments with hip-hop; and on to the final years leading to his death in 2007.

Both directors are veteran documentarians in various capacities, Pollard in particular boasting a filmography as director, producer and editor that encompasses subjects from the political and musical realms in particular. He’s produced and edited documentary and narrative films for Spike Lee and others. That experience shines through in the impressive pace and tempo of the film, a vital component of a film about one of jazz’s great timekeepers. The Drum Also Waltzes is an ideal primer, encompassing the key points of Roach’s legacy in a compact 80 minutes.

The timing of their return to the project also proved to be perfect. The filmmakers have amassed a powerful roster of speakers to relate Roach’s importance, but what’s stunning about watching the film now is how many of those participants we’ve lost in recent years. Not only elders like Jimmy Heath, Harry Belafonte and Randy Weston, but gone-way-too-soon figures like Greg Tate make posthumous appearances alongside those thankfully still with us, including Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Questlove, Abdullah Ibrahim, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sonia Sanchez, Charles Tolliver, Warren Smith and Julian Priester.

Unsurprisingly, Rollins proves to be one of the most insightful contributors. He compares Roach to Art Blakey at one point, calling the leader of the Jazz Messengers an “elemental” player while Roach combined that ability with a more “finessed, polished” approach. Late in the film, bridging M’Boom percussion symphonies with Roach’s early hip-hop fusions with Fab 5 Freddy, Tate notes that, “Max was one of the people redefining what the music was gonna be in every decade that he was active.”

Like so many documentaries on jazz subjects, The Drum Also Waltzes is better at placing Roach in a social and historical context than it is in drilling down into what made him so singular as a player. Although we get a few seconds of Questlove playing a snippet of the Roach solo piece that gives the film its title, the contributions of any other drummers of a younger generation could have shed some light on the subject of the master’s innovation and influence.

“I would find my own way,” Roach says at one point in reference to his work with Charlie Parker, and for the most part Pollard and Shapiro let Roach’s playing speak for itself in exemplifying that groundbreaking path. Solos peppered throughout the film showcase not only Roach’s power, precision and swing, but his keen melodic sense, architectural elegance and probing curiosity.

“To me,” Rollins concludes, “his drum style was like heaven.” It’s as good a one-word description as one might conceive, and The Drum Also Waltzes is as good a career-spanning compendium as one could hope for.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.