Posted by woodjb on May 18, 2011
On May 13, 2011, documentary filmmaker Bruce Ricker died peacefully in Cambridge, Mass., at the age of 68.
Frequent TCM viewers may recognize the name from such feature-length profile films as Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way (which premiered on TCM in December, 2010), Johnny Mercer: “The Dream’s on Me” (2009), and Budd Boetticher: “A Man Can Do That” (2005). I had the pleasure of knowing Bruce for more than twenty years, first as a free-lance designer doing odd jobs for his Rhapsody Films video label, and later simply as a friend and occasional guest at his West Village apartment when I was too poor to afford a New York hotel.
Bruce was a lawyer in Kansas City when he first delved into the world of filmmaking, orchestrating and shooting a casual jam session with Jay McShann, Big Joe Turner, and Count Basie, released to great acclaim as The Last of the Blue Devils (1979). In the mid-90s, I was given the chance to look through the raw camera footage (for the purpose of assembling deleted scenes for the DVD release), and remember how organic it all seemed. There was no blocking, no staging. The music played. The cameras rolled and roamed through the club, catching glimpses, moving on, flies on the wall of the legendary union hall as (unbeknownst to the participants) a eulogy was being performed for their brand of music, their breed of musician. Performed with gusto.
Bruce’s next major project (as producer) was Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988, directed by Charlotte Zwerin). Comprised largely of archival footage, it, like Blue Devils, offered viewers a rare window into the creative process of a jazz master, without excessive hype and exposition. It was pure and it was sweet.
As anyone in the business will confirm, making niche documentaries is not exactly a lucrative undertaking, but Bruce had cultivated a loyal base of fans who enjoyed jazz on film and appreciated documentaries that were not dumbed down for mass consumption. He served them by forming Rhapsody Films, Inc., a video label that catered to their eclectic tastes. Where else but from Rhapsody could one find documentaries on Sun Ra, both Bill Evans, Elvin Jones, Jaki Byard, Coleman Hawkins, Steve Lacy, and Sippie Wallace, to name only a few?
One of Bruce’s biggest fans was Clint Eastwood, who in the last fifteen years of Bruce’s life, became sort of a patron, lending his clout (and his own jazz knowledge and tastes) to Bruce’s work, enabling him to raise production funds and reach a broader audience. Bruce was able to spend less time running the video company (Bruce’s brother Ken took up the reins) and more time as a documentarian. Using Eastwood’s identity as leverage, Bruce directed the concert film Eastwood After Hours: Live at Carnegie Hall, Budd Boetticher: “A Man Can Do That” and Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends (2007, which aired on PBS’s American Masters). Bruce also contributed to Eastwood’s projects, serving as occasional music consultant (it was Bruce who suggested the smooth, sultry vocals of Johnny Hartman for the memorable soundtrack of The Bridges of Madison County ).
In his choice of projects, Bruce on one level seemed to be surfing among opportunities, looking for commercially viable subjects based on the availability of music rights, archival footage, and interview subjects). Making music-themed documentaries is like walking through a legal minefield. It wasn’t until recently that I began to see Bruce’s films as a cohesive body of work. Anything but a random assortment of profile films, he had created a series of filmic paeans to the figures who had influenced his own life. I had this realization while watching Dave Brubeck, and finding myself unexpectedly moved to tears by the poignant finale — the last thing one would expect in a traditional interview-based jazz documentary.
Because Bruce had — unlike most contemporary documentarians — remained silent behind the camera instead of imposing his personality on the film, I had made the false assumption that his films were impersonal. In fact, they are anything but.
Employing what might be called an “objective” style (but no film — even the most impersonal documentary — can ever be truly objective), Bruce favored performance footage (new or archival, didn’t matter), sparse voice-over narration, interviews, stock footage, and photos. Opting for a relatively neutral directorial voice, Bruce left it to the musician to sway the audience, and allowed the viewer to connect directly with the musician without being coached. Bruce’s films don’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. He didn’t want to use flashy editing or first-person commentary to convince you to appreciate the artistry of someone like Thelonious Monk. Johnny Mercer doesn’t need to be made more relevant to contemporary viewers. If you don’t dig it, that’s your problem.
The closest Bruce came to inserting himself into his films is when he allowed Eastwood to interact on-camera with performers in a studio setting, sharing personal anecdotes or noodling on the piano. Eastwood is Bruce’s surrogate, playing the role of the cinematic storyteller. Bruce knew Eastwood possessed a casual charm beyond that of ordinary mortals, and would’ve been a fool not to capitalize on it. And so Eastwood “became” Ricker. It’s funny when you think about it. How many people get to cast Clint Eastwood as themselves? I wonder if Eastwood himself knew what was really going on there.
What was Bruce the man like? Honestly, he was a bit of a curmudgeon (and I use that term with the greatest affection). He had a sharp wit and a sly distaste for the Hollywood system, even as he managed to find shelter within it. He was too sensible to be mesmerized by the illusory promise of fame that has compromised the principals of many a filmmaking talent. He loved to peek at the warped mechanics that governed the functioning of a major Hollywood studio, and then mumble these observations to friends over a sandwich or a drink, once he was back on his familiar stomping grounds of Manhattan or Cambridge.
I’m glad that Bruce got some recognition for his efforts before his death. Several jazz and film festivals paid tribute to Bruce’s career in film. The Harvard Film Archive screened several of his works and now houses the Bruce Ricker Collection: documents pertaining to the making of his films.
When I last spoke to Bruce, about three weeks before his death, he expressed the independent filmmaker’s lament of, having successfully completing one year-long project, having to muster up the energy and resources to start the whole process again from scratch. A couple of potential projects had been delayed due to difficult negotiations with artists’ heirs, but it looked like he was going to be able to launch a feature documentary about Doris Day. “Doris Day?” I asked in disbelief, “really?” Bruce asked what I know about Day’s life and music. “Nothing, I guess, beyond ‘Que Sera Sera.’” “Exactly,” he said. I swallowed my ignorance and he left it at that.
It’s too bad we’ll never see it. The loss is not only ours, but also Day’s. Even if her career is later commemorated in a documentary, I doubt it will have the integrity and intelligence of the film Bruce might have made. I doubt the filmmaker will take a step back and allow Day and her music to tell their own story, at a pace that allows the viewer to savor, ponder, and enjoy. But you never know. The filmmaker might. The filmmaker might look at some of Bruce’s films, just out of curiosity, and see that flash can get in the way of substance, and that there is a certain value in being silent, remaining hidden, and simply listening to the music.
That’s what Bruce was all about.
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