were at least three LPs and one movie inspired by the Synanon drug treatment
center. Before Neal Hefti’s soundtrack album and a weird jazz-rock-chorale
piece were waxed, a jazz combo consisting of Synanon patients released Sounds of Synanon, by far the best of
the three. While it would launch the career of guitarist Joe Pass, trumpeter
David Allan was the focus of a Drew Associates television documentary around
the same time. Rarely seen since its 1961 broadcast, Gregory Shuker, D.A.
Pennebaker & William Ray’s David screens
as part DOC NYC’s tribute to Pennebaker.
retrospect, it is strange to watch David for
many reasons, particularly since its focus falls squarely on the now nearly
forgotten Allan rather than the future superstar Pass. Of course, Allan’s
surfer good looks probably made much more television sense at the time. Musically,
Allan is also featured, sounding pretty good on “All Blues” during the opening
and “Georgia on My Mind” (a somewhat ill-fitting thematic choice) over the
closing credits. However, it is rather awkward to watch Allan frequently butt
heads with Pass, when he really should have done his best to tie his wagon to
the guitarist’s star.
course, Pennebaker and company’s intimate look inside Synanon is downright
eerie, given its later scandals, including the attempted assassination of
attorney Paul Morantz through the unlikely mechanism of a rattlesnake snuffed
in his mailbox. We see founder Chuck Dederich still holding court before taking
flight to Arizona as a fugitive from justice. In fact, his group encounter
session with Allan appears to be a forerunner to the notoriously ruckus “Synanon
Game,” in which patients tore into each where it would hurt the most, all in
the name of therapy.
what we now know, it is easy to see warning signs throughout this scene. The
insistence with which Dederich and fellow patients discourage visits from Allan’s
wife and young child should have thrown up a red flag for viewers, looking dare
we say “cultish” to contemporary eyes. In a way though, this demonstrates the
merit of Pennebaker and Drew’s approach to documentary filmmaking. What
happened, happened. We can see it just as clearly now as then, but the context
we bring to it today is radically different.
David certainly makes
viewers wonder whatever became of Allan. As a time capsule of early Synanon
before it completely descended into bedlam and Pass before he became a mainstay
for Pacific Jazz and Pablo Records, David
is an enormously significant film that merits preservation on the National
Film Registry. Pennebaker also documented another “if only” moment in jazz
history when he recorded Dave Lambert’s unsuccessful audition for RCA with a
prospective new group months before his accidental death. In fact, the two
films would make quite a nice pairing at jazz and film festivals.
For now, anyone interested in the early 1960s Pacific
Jazz scene should see David when it
screens at DOC NYC, because it is likely to remain one of the scarcer
obscurities in the Drew Associates catalog. Highly recommended as a fascinating
jazz and cultural history curiosity, it screens this Sunday (11/16), with 2014 DOC
NYC Lifetime Achievement honoree Pennebaker scheduled to attend.
Labels: D.A. Pennebaker, David Allan, DOC NYC '14, Documentary, Drew Associates, Joe Pass, Synanon