Throughout history, there have been various couples in the music industry who have captured the public eye — John Lennon and Yoko Ono immediately come to mind, and which fan of Kurt Cobain has not heard of Courtney Love?
Most casual music fans today, however, would not know of Lee and Helen Morgan, the couple whose tragic story stunned the jazz world back in the 1970s. I Called Him Morgan, a documentary by Swedish director Kasper Collin, explores the couple’s dynamic.
Morgan recounts the doomed relationship between jazz musician Lee and Helen Morgan, his manager and common-law wife. Featuring the cinematography of Arrival’s Bradford Young, the documentary depicts how the career of a brilliant trumpet prodigy was tragically cut short.
Surprisingly, it is not Lee Morgan but rather, Helen Morgan who proves to be the most intriguing element of the documentary. The heart of Morgan revolves around the poignant testimony of Lee Morgan’s widow, who passed away a month after the interview. A strong-willed woman from impoverished roots, Helen Morgan exhibits a candor that forms the film’s emotional crux. Her narrative incites reactions ranging from sympathy to repulsion, reflecting her complex and captivating character.
Unfortunately, the intrigue of Helen Morgan’s character makes Lee Morgan uninteresting in comparison. For all its recitation of Lee Morgan’s talent, the documentary fails to humanize the musician; there is little background given on his life before his success.
Furthermore, beyond Lee Morgan’s cockiness and addiction, the other facets of his personality go relatively unexplored. Ironically, when Morgan focuses on its titular character, the film’s quality slides into that of a standard biographical documentary and the narrative loses its emotional resonance.
The stronghold of the film, the relationship between Lee Morgan and Helen Morgan, is often pushed aside in favor of extraneous details on Lee Morgan’s career — he and Helen Morgan do not even meet until a third of the way into the film. Much of Morgan’s introduction is also heavily saturated in jazz culture, which alienates viewers who are less acquainted with the genre’s history.
Regardless of the deficiencies in storytelling, however, the story is fascinating and informative. Lee Morgan and Helen Morgan’s heartbreaking story is fraught with drama, and the expertly executed climax puts viewers on the edges of their seats in anticipation. Besides Helen Morgan’s testimony, Morgan is resplendent with more in-depth interviews with figures of pivotal importance in the story, and the various perspectives that the film discloses are fascinating.
Through the uses of both digital video and film, Young gives Morgan a retro look in a visual homage to Morgan’s time. Coupled with the documentary’s excellent jazz soundtrack, the cinematography gives Morgan a distinct feel that belies the stereotypical detached and objective tone of the documentary.
Overall, Morgan is a mixed bag that constantly skates the line between dull and enthralling. Despite the film’s padding and standard portrait of Morgan himself, Collin recounts a fascinating story that rocked the jazz world, told from the perspective of a conflicted and enthralling woman. The film arrives in L.A
theaters on March 31.