J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: David

There 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.

In 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.

Of 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.

Given 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.

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