Berlinale 2022 review: Rewind & Play (Alain Gomis)

“The film reconfigures the past without changing reality, but rather carefully reshaping it to be more accurate to a valuable perspective that would most likely have been entirely lost had it not been for the director’s admirable efforts to retrieve lost time.”

Music is the universal language, and few artists understood this better than Thelonious Monk, who made a career from telling stories without even uttering a word in most instances, allowing his art to talk for him. As one of the few individuals who genuinely earns the right to be called an iconoclast, there is so much that we still need to learn about his process of creation, which resulted in several incredibly important works that defined the history of jazz. In an effort to understand what impelled him to create, Monk was invited to appear on Jazz Portrait in 1969, a French television programme aimed at providing a spotlight for global icons to have their work seen and embraced by a wider audience in Europe. It is not only his riveting performances on the show that are fascinating but the interview that it was structured around. Half a century later, experimental filmmaker Alain Gomis has taken the raw footage of this interview and restructured it into Rewind & Play, a daring and provocative piece of non-fiction filmmaking. It is centered not on the interview as audiences at the time saw it, but rather the moments in between, where the interviewer and Monk engaged in a harsh game of cat-and-mouse, with the musician seeing this interview as an opportunity to speak about his own experiences as a black musician during the era of social unrest, while the producers and interviewer saw it as just another opportunity to provide good music for their audience, without the burden of having to address issues that felt uncomfortable for primetime television.

Even from a contemporary perspective, the name “Thelonious Monk” suggests many vivid images, particularly in regard to experimental art. Monk was far from a traditional musician, and he spent nearly his entire career engaging in a form of artistic improvisation, dedicating his life to shattering boundaries and laying the groundwork for many who followed him. His music is distinct, and the dissonance of his music reflects his chaotic but creative mind. However, there is more to his life than just this almost empyrean representation, which Gomis sets out to explore through this film. Rewind & Play endeavours to redefine Monk, not solely as some unimpeachable genius who is universally respected by his peers, but rather someone who has been the victim of similar challenges as many of his contemporaries. He existed in a time when racial tensions frequently led to violence, and he used the platform he was given not solely for the sake of entertainment, but also as a tool of rebellion. Being given the stage on a national television show afforded Monk the chance to explore his experiences through what he imagined would be a deeply insightful interview. However, this was not the intention of the original interviewer, which is something that the director was hoping to rectify with this film, daring to go in search of the musician’s experiences at a particular time in his career through engaging with footage of Monk directly, restructuring it to be more cohesive to his original intentions, rather than just an innocuous series of meek and mild questions.

In terms of form, Rewind & Play has many interesting ideas, with Gomis actively engaging with the archival footage, rather than just presenting it directly. His role as a documentarian here entails not being an intrusive voice on whatever narrative can be constructed through these fragments of an interview, but rather a critical eye that finds creative methods of using it as a starting point for a riveting depiction of Monk’s internal state, which leads to a much more profound and moving documentary. Gomis is reclaiming the time that was stolen from the musician when he agreed to take part in this programme, and endeavours to undo the manipulation and present a fuller, more genuine image of Monk at this particular moment in his career. In the process, the director crafts a film that functions as a brutal indictment of the media, where a world-renowned musician agrees not only to perform for an international audience, but bare his soul in a detailed interview, only to be criticized for his more personal stories being too serious for the audience, told that his attempts at drawing attention to the inequality that he faced in the past “are not nice”, one of the most jarring moments of the film. This attempt to erase his perspective in favour of a particular image that would be palatable for audiences still resonates deeply from a modern standpoint, with the unsettling depiction of the manipulative nature of the media being an issue we still face today. There is still a belief that audiences do not want to be confronted with sobering statements on racial inequality, but rather presented with pleasant music that is punctuated with amusing anecdotes, not realizing that this music they are interested in would not be possible without the hardships Monk had to face in the past, one of the immense ironies that Gomis seeks to draw attention to throughout the film.

Rewind & Play is a film made by someone who clearly has a deep personal connection to Monk’s music, as well as the challenges he faced in the process of creating it. The manner in which Gomis frames the musician and presents him as this complex individual who is far more than just the celebrated artist adored by audiences for over half a century immediately makes this one of the essential portraits of an artist produced over the past few years. It is only made more compelling by the fact that it is almost entirely told through Monk’s own words and actions, the film only deviating from his perspective in brief sojourns in which we see conversations between either the host and the producers of the show, or someone close to Monk, who offers further insights into his artistic process and personal life. This allows us rare glimpses into the life of a cultural genius as he navigates untrodden territory, both in terms of geographical space and his emotional state, which come about after being confronted with deeply unsettling ideas. Gomis takes otherwise inconsequential archival footage that would normally be left on the cutting-room floor and uses it to paint a vivid image of one of history’s most enigmatic artists, crafting a stunning document of a creative mind in motion. The film reconfigures the past without changing reality, but rather carefully reshaping it to be more accurate to a valuable perspective that would most likely have been entirely lost had it not been for the director’s admirable efforts to retrieve lost time.