Monday, April 18, 2011

The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi (Andrew Thomas & Toby Gleason, 2009)

At the heart of The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi beats a very great documentary. Much of the first half of the 2009 work from Andrew Thomas has been culled from a 1963 film by Ralph J. Gleason (co-director Toby Gleason's father), Anatomy of a Hit. This gorgeous, informative, interesting, black and white work provides a backbone for The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi but, sadly, once the time period covered by Anatomy of a Hit is over, the newer documentary dies a sad, spineless death.

Simply put, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi is a freaking mess. Little pockets of information pop up occasionally (in chronologically questionable order) in the post-1963 section of the film. The rest of the film's second half takes the viewer far afield from Guaraldi (or, at best, with some tenuous connections). The documentary suddenly veers into a discussion of race relations, "What's My Line?", JFK, Lenny Bruce, Irwin Corey, Dick Gregory, and a whole lot more that just doesn't add up to anything.

The few salvageable bits from the film's second half include Guaraldi's involvement with the Peanuts cartoon franchise, his playing the opening of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and his later albums (which are glossed over all too quickly). These brief bits perhaps add up to ten minutes in total. The rest is excruciating, especially the film's finale where we get not one but two completely unnecessary renditions of Guaraldi's song Cast Your Fate to the Wind with tin-eared lyrics thrown on top.

There's no clear narrative voice to the second half of The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi. It's not apparent why a lot of the people in interviews are even on screen. Meanwhile, people with obvious connections to Guaraldi, such as his son, David, aren't present. This leaves a huge, infuriating gap in the film. Other than one shot of David as a toddler, he isn't on screen. There's also nary a mention of Guaraldi's wife in the second half of the film. And, other than one mention of Guaraldi's passing and an image of an obituary (with headline text that suddenly starts moving around to no end), there's no discussion of Guaraldi's death.

It's sad that a five minute glance at Wikipedia will allow people to glean more information on Guaraldi than the 116 minute film! The interviews with Guaraldi's bandmates, a few other musicians, and Peanuts partner Lee Mendelson are interesting and add to the information presented by The Anatomy of a Hit but the rest of the material shouldn't even qualify as DVD extras.

According to this article in Variety, The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi has won best-doc honors at fests in Colorado and Utah. I'm not sure how this is possible. The more I think back about the film, the angrier I get at just how muddled it is. There are large chunks of the film that could be (should be) removed that would only strengthen what little narrative there is in the film's second half. It's shocking for me to read that "writer-director Andrew Thomas, [has] worked on A&E's "Biography" and History Channel's "Modern Marvels" documentary series." He should have known better.

In short, Ralph J. Gleason's original material (Anatomy of a Hit, Jazz Casual) should be released in whole and the rest of The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi needs to be junked or saved as supplemental materials to Gleason's work.

It looks like there may be another documentary about Guaraldi in the works, something called Cast Your Fate. I'm hoping that this is the antidote to Andrew Thomas's unsatisfying documentary. We can hope.


Dug said...

Mike: As a big-time Guaraldi fan who had the chance to catch a screening of "Anatomy" a couple months back, I couldn't agree more: It went off the rails at the halfway point, and never came back.

It was very uneven as a film, and I too had wondered how it has won some of the festival honors it's credited with. While some of the context it provided was welcome (e.g., Guaraldi's concerts in support of the civil rights movement, and Dick Gregory's reminiscences), the discursions overwhelmed the narrative during the second half, completely losing Vince during extended portions. The Lenny Bruce/Brubeck/Irwin Corey stuff went far enough afield that it felt more like it had been excerpted from a more generic documentary on the SF Beat scene. (I also thought it VERY weird that they included that rambling, unconnected stuff w/ Corey, without once mentioning/asking Corey about his role in getting VG's trio fired from the Hungry I, which famously infuriated VG). I also felt that some of the talking heads didn't give a lot of concrete insight into Vince, and were instead projecting some of their own recollections and views from the period onto him and his story.

At the very least, it needed crisper editing, and a more aggressive editorial hand. E.g., there were a couple scenes w/ George Winston (like the one where he's talking about how VG's Peanuts soundtracks evoked certain seasons) which were good in their core content, but then lingered inexplicably for a few awkward seconds after the point had been made. I understand the challenges they were up against in trying to convey the last several years of Guaraldi's life, given the dearth of archival footage on him from that timeframe, but the last portion of the film was particularly weak.

I feel bad saying it, but I thought the ending performance by Barbara Ware was positively cringe-worthy and out of place (not so much because of the vocal performance, which would have been fine under a photo montage or some such, but because it was so atrociously lip-synced and filmed with in-your-face camera angles completely at odds with the rest of the film). And then following it up immediately w/ yet another vocal performance of "Cast Your Fate" (by the vocal trio featuring Jon Hendricks) was just weird (both because of the strangely abrupt, up-tempo vocal feel, and because the lyrics are so obviously not VGs).

So, in all, I couldn't shake the feeling that the film was a lot of hoary reminiscences (some more interesting than others) riding Vince Guaraldi's coattails. The one thing it did do, however, was to whet my appetite to see the three half-hour "Anatomy of a Hit" shows in their entirety.

Dug said...

P.S.: While far shorter, I found the video documentary on Guaraldi, "The Maestro of Menlo Park" (included in the "Peanuts 1960s" DVD box set) to be much more illuminating and focused. If you haven't seen it, you should track it down.

frank-oliver said...

I saw the documentary "The Maestro
of Menlo Park". This is very informative, especially about the circumstances of Vince Guaraldi`s deathin 1976. But in the whole documentary is no video footage of Vince Guaraldi himself, just pictures of him. So a mix af the two documentarys would be a perfect film.

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