Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones
Directed By: Ellen Weissbrod
Starring: Quincy Jones
Listen Up: The lives of Quincy Jones is an impressionistic biographical film about legendary musician/composer/arranger/producer Quincy Jones. It touches on key events throughout his personal and professional lives going back to his childhood in Chicago and moving up through the time of the film's production, during which he was recording tracks for his "Back on the Block" album with a diverse group of collaborators. Interview footage with Jones and several friends, family members, and colleagues in a variety of settings, ranging from studio sit-downs to staged visits to locations such as Jones' childhood neighborhood, is blended with archival footage.
The film has a roughly chronological arc as it tracks important events in Jones' life, but it does not get specific about dates, and is editorially complex by design. Past, present, and future are blended together, sometimes with overlapping conversations from different interviews. Running parallel with all of the discussions, we see footage of the recording sessions for the "Back on the Block" album.
The purpose of the documentary seems to be to provide viewers an impression of who Jones is without necessarily loading them down with too many facts. At times, I found the aggressive cutting style of the film frustrating. I had the distinct impression during these moments that director Ellen Weissbrod's mission statement for the project was "I have an AVID and I'm gonna use it". On the other hand, I have to acknowledge that a number of the editorially complex juxtapositions were quite effective and interesting, capturing the improvisational jazz sense that Weissbrod was no-doubt seeking while offering insights that might not have been apparent with a more linearly constructed documentary. In other words, when it works, it works, and when it does not work, it is a chore to sit through. That is a pretty good description of musical improvisation as well, so in the end, I suppose it is a case of "Mission Accomplished".
The amazing breadth and depth of Jones career is illustrated by the diverse group of interview participants offering testament to him. Regardless of what they say, the fact that we hear from jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan; filmmakers Sidney Lumet and Steven Speilberg; Pop/R&B stars Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, James Ingram, and Tevin Campbell; (at the time) contemporary rap artists like Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee; and a host of others that could fill up half of this review illustrates the point clearly.
While there is plenty of praise and fawning thrown Jones' way, the documentary does try to touch on some of the darker elements in his life as well as some of his personal failings, although it never dwells long on these subjects for very long.
The film is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio which the DVD box indicates is representative of its original television exhibition. This is a bit confusing since the documentary was definitely exhibited theatrically when it was released. The inclusion of the theatrical trailer on this disc is proof of that if you do not trust my memory. That being said, the framing looks tight and accurate at 4:3, with very little additional headroom and little evidence of cropping on the sides. The video quality is at the mercy of the source material which includes a lot of archival footage and material gathered from sources ranging from video to 35mm film. While this inherent nature of the film prevents it from being reference quality, it is presented with only minor digital video artifacts. Amusingly, the Michael Jackson interview segments are presented in total darkness as he apparently did not allow them to light him when shooting the interview. On the positive side, it is arguably the best he has looked since 1983.
The film is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 English Pro-Logic track. While a 5.1 remix might have been nice, this is a much better than usual matrixed surround track with a very complex and detailed mix which takes full advantage of the surround channel to create an immersive sense of depth.
When the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with the following series of skippable promotional spots presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound:
- DVD Trailer for Rock the Bells (2:16)
- DVD Trailer for Showstoppers (1:01)
- DVD Trailer for Roots 30th Anniversary Edition (1:28)
- DVD Trailer for Roots: The Next Generations (1:15)
Q: TheMan (35:43) is a 2008 biographical featurette covering topics about Jones complimentary to the "Listen Up…" documentary. It includes more information on his musical working methods including discussions about the "Back on the Block" sessions that were used as a backdrop for the earlier documentary. There is also a little more discussion about his relationship with his children. Most of the featurette is dedicated to his humanitarian efforts on behalf of causes such as debt relief and the Cambodian Children's Fund. The most entertaining bit from me was and amusing anecdote from Bono about meeting Pope John Paul II. Interview subjects include Quincy Jones, Bono, The RZA, will.i.am, filmmaker Brett Ratner, Grandmaster Mele Mel, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, Jones's son Quincy 'QD3' Jones III (who is also the executive producer for this documentary featurette), songwriter Rod Temperton, actor Chris Tucker, Alicia Keys, former US President Bill Clinton, Earth Institute Director and special advisor to U.N, Secretary General Jeffrey Sachs, Project Q advisory board chairman Chris Stamos, Cambodian Children's Fund Founder Scott Neeson, Daughter Martina Jones, Time Warner Chairman Dick Parsons, actor Terrence Howard, and General Colin Powell.
Quincy Remembers (4:19) is a brief featurette in which Jones talks about various experiences with famous collaborators while guiding the camera on a tour of photos hanging his home. The most lengthy discussion covers the Miles and Quincy Live in Montreux project with Miles Davis.
Hangin' with Quincy and Gilberto Gil (6:07) feature Brazilian musical legend Gill and Quincy Jones reminiscing together in Quincy's home. This includes a lot of mutual admiration and a story about how they first met while Quincy was touring with Dizzy Gillespie.
Theatrical Trailer (2:28) is presented in 4:3 video and plays almost like a compact version of the whole movie.
The disc is packaged in an Amaray-style case. The only insert is a promotional one for a music web site with a code to download some free tracks.
Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones is an insightful if occasionally frustratingly assembled documentary on the famous musician/composer/arranger/producer. It is presented on disc with a decent 4:3 transfer for which I did not notice any obvious compositional deficiencies and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-logic soundtrack that did justice to the film's complex mix. Extras, including a trailer and three featurettes, are modest, with the most illuminating being a recent featurette produced by Jones' son which touches on aspects of Jones' life not covered by the 1990 documentary.