‘The film looks like how Ornette sounds’: Shirley Clarke’s Music Documentary ‘Ornette: Made in America’

Dr. Rosa Nogués (University of the Arts London)

Shirley Clarke’s documentary film ‘Ornette: Made in America’ (1984) is no ordinary music documentary. The film — a portrait of the free jazz music legend Ornette Coleman — follows the jazz musician over the course of 20 years, and yet, it offers neither a biographical narrative nor an exposition of his musical virtuosity. Clarke, the American independent filmmaker responsible for films such as ‘The Connection’ (1961) and ‘Portrait of Jason’ (1967), gained notoriety in the 1950s for short experimental dance films and documentaries made in collaboration with Willard Van Dyke, D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, proponents of what would become the direct cinema movement. This experience would prove instrumental in Clarke’s life-long approach to filmmaking, concerned with the critical examination of the limitations of representation and the claim to truth of documentary filmmaking. ‘Ornette: Made in America’ is thus framed by the question as to the nature of the documentary process itself, and more specifically – as a music documentary – the question of the relationship between film and music.

Music is naturally the central element in ‘Ornette: Made in America’, but rather than having an expository or diegetic function, music is that which drives and frames the film, it is the skeleton around which the film takes shape – “The first thing I laid down was the sound” (Clarke). And given that Coleman’s music is based on freedom of form and improvisation, Clarke’s film attempts to do exactly that with its non-linear structure, quick editing style, jumps between documentary and staged sequences, as well as between film and video footage. The object of the documentary is thus the music itself, and the ongoing problematic along the film is precisely how to reflect, portray and document the nature of Coleman’s music. My presentation will discuss Clarke’s use of music in ‘Ornette: Made in America’ focussing on how the film reflects an understanding of the filmmaking process as a musical endeavour.

Dr Rosa Nogués is an Associate Lecturer in Art Theory at the Chelsea College of Arts (London). She obtained her PhD in 2013 at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (Kingston University). She has lectured at Central Saint Martins (London), Middlesex University (London) and the Universität für angewandte Kunst (Vienna). Her writing has been published in n-paradoxa, Revista Mundo Crítico and the current issue of MIRAJ.