In Keep On Keepin’ On, a 23-year-old, blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin, who suffers terrible stage fright, finds his way to jazz legend and teacher Clark Terry, 89. Over the course of filming, Terry begins to lose his sight as an unlikely bond begins to take hold. When Justin is invited to compete in an elite international competition, Clark’s health takes a turn for the worse. As clocks tick, we are suddenly witness to two friends tackling the toughest challenges of their interwoven lives. Terry, now 93, was Quincy Jones’ first teacher, and mentor to Miles Davis. He is among the few performers ever to have played in both Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. In the ‘60s Terry broke the color barrier as the first African-American staff musician at NBC, on The Tonight Show. The film is by first-time director Al Hicks and producers Quincy Jones and Paula DuPre’ Pesmen (The Cove and Chasing Ice).
Jazz legend Clark Terry lay in his bed with tubes in his nose while he scats a melody. Sitting next to him is the young Justin Kaufman repeating the tune on a piano. Justin continues to practice his playing while Clark leads him in song for hours - breaking in between for stories and chit chat. Clark asks Justin what time it is. He responds that it is 1:30am. The two simply laugh at how quickly time passes when they’re together.
Keep on Keepin’ On, a documentary filmed over the course of four years, follows both the lives of Clark Terry and Justin Kaufman. Both could have had their own documentary based on their amazing jazz careers, but focusing on their convergence just makes this movie so much more. Of course, Clark Terry has plenty of stories to tell the way the film picks up on his honorary Grammy and the release of his autobiography. You can go down the list of his influences and partners over the years from the bandleader Duke Ellington to the masterful conductor Quincy Jones. He’s been a horn player on The Tonight Show for a decade, created over 900 recordings and has even been a mentor to other legends the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. So there’s plenty of history, archival footage and interviews with those touched by his talent and knowledge.
But just as amazing is the profile of Justin Kaufman. Blinded at a young age, Justin finds himself naturally drawn to the piano and sticks with it. Despite having terrible eyesight and completely losing it by sixth grade, he’s amazingly chipper. He loves playing the piano and trading words and melodies with Clark. But he still has that nervous drive for striving to be the best. Constant practice and moments of doubt tend to cloud his mind when presented with big opportunities. It’s not destructive, however, as he has plenty of encouragement from Clark who gives him some of the best advice any musical prodigy could hear. For confidence, Clark lets Justin have his lucky socks as a symbol of all the greats before him being right there with him. If he needs more confidence, Clark is more than willing to supply more socks.
Clark Terry, even for being over 90 and with diabetes hindering his mobility, can still mentor true talent. When he’s with Justin talking about jazz, he seems up and collected. When dealing with medical issues, he’s an emotional mess with his wife being all that holds him together. The conditions of his legs worsen to the point where he is fearful for his life about what needs to happen next. Much like Roger Ebert, Clark is a man that may be chopped down, but never considered out of it. Time and age hasn’t affected his memory that much as he regales Justin with stories of the greats like no one else. Justin and Clark speak the same language and never once feel like they’re struggling to connect. Conversations between the two go well on into the wee hours of the mornings with nearly every meeting.
Though treated with a somber tone, you can feel all the joy and pride from the talent that resonates off the screen. This documentary was filmed over the course of four years and took two years to edit. Clark Terry died in early 2015. I can’t think of a better tribute to his legacy than a film such as this that celebrates his life and showcases the influence he left behind for so many. By the end of the film, Justin is playing on stage with Quincy Jones and Clark is still mentoring another young prodigy. If Clark lived for another decade, there’s no doubt he would still be imparting his wisdom for many more jazz greats rising from the ranks. Hopefully, his influences will continue long after his death.
You rated this film: 5
Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Classification is to be confirmed by the British Board of Film Classification
Join the Cinema Paradiso DVD rental and Blu-ray Rental service today and get a Free DVD rental trial. Sign up today!