You probably won't walk away from Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones with an orderly, coherent understanding of this musical titan's career. You might end up dazzled or a little dazed, depending on your appetite for hyper-quick edits, overlapping quotes, dizzying montages, beat-heavy music and general sensory assault. Listen Up, although at times invigorating, humorous and insightful, suffers some self-conscious artiness. The edgy style transcends the old way: There's no somber-toned narrator opening with "Quincy Delight Jones Jr. was born on March 14, 1933 in Chicago's South Side ghetto." (By the way, this is information that is never specifically provided in the film.)
But the documentary's style leaves the viewer with less genuine understanding of Jones than a satchel full of impressions:
Grew up amid violence on Chicago's South Side, mother was mentally ill, moved to Seattle (it saved him), father did best he could, young Quincy was a sponge for music, dedicated to trumpet, big band, be-bop; befriended Ray Charles as a teen-ager; signed on with bandleader Lionel Hampton, traveled the world; wrote arrangements for Basie; first black artist to break into film scores (The Pawnbroker, In Cold Blood, In the Heat of the Night, others); first black Artist & Repertoire man at a major record label; produced first No. 1 hit in '63: Leslie Gore's It's My Party; almost died from aneurism; marriages a mess; children neglected; workaholic, produced Thriller, biggest selling album of all time; had mental breakdown some time after; wants to stop and smell the roses.
These blasts of insight are provided by Jones and a compendium of heavyweight interview subjects, from jazz vets such as Clark Terry and Billy Eckstine to youngblood rappers Ice T, Melle Mel and Flavor Flav.
Noted non-talkers such as Michael Jackson (whom Jones calls "Smelly"), Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Miles Davis do their bit. Most of the interview snippets are done with stark lighting and darkened backdrops.
In an engaging touch, all interviewees were asked to identify themselves on camera, an interesting exercise for some of the superstars who never need introduction: "I'm Barbra. Barbra Streisand (shy smile)." "I'm Francis Albert Sinatra (cocky grin)."
"I think we had some of the same girlfriends," Miles Davis croaks.
Still, there's a teasing air about Listen Up. Even the title asks for your attention and then the cinematic style taxes it. There's a delightful moment that captures Ray Charles in the studio, singing overdubbed ad libs to I'll Be Good to You. He's grinning, shifting his body, stomping his feet, singing his guts out. And the camera actually lingers long enough for viewers to indulge in the moment. Listen Up could've used more passing segments with depth.
Snippets of Jones working in the studio _ giving directions, sprucing up an arrangement, listening pensively _ run throughout the film. But his methodology is never succinctly portrayed. Again, only glimpses.
All told, Jones is canonized _ and perhaps with justification. His reputation within the music business is impeccable. Movie mogul Steven Spielberg, who worked with Jones on The Color Purple, rhapsodizes, "Quincy is a spray-gun of love."
The audience chuckled.
The Lives of Quincy Jones
Director: Ellen Weissbrod
Cast: Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Ice T, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles and dozens of others
Rating: PG, occasional profanity
Running time: 110 minutes
Excellent +++++; Very good ++++;
Good +++; Mediocre ++; Poor +