Jazz progressed rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s but be-bopper Frank Morgan mostly missed it because he was in jail, paying for the crimes he committed to support his heroin habit. Incredibly, when Morgan re-emerged in the 1980s he picked up where he left off, playing old-fashioned music that still sounded fresh and exciting.
In "Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story," talented documentarian N.C. Heikin ("Kimjongilia") puts the saxophonist's career into proper context. The film doesn't shy away from a checkered past that included bank-robbery and prison riots, nor does it dance around the reasons why Morgan and so many other jazzmen turned to narcotics: to get closer to "the happy/sad feeling" evoked by the music of Morgan's mentor, the legendary Charlie Parker.
"Sound of Redemption" is anchored by talking-head interviews with those who knew and loved Morgan (including novelist Michael Connelly, who co-produced the film). Heikin also weaves in credibly faked news reports to help tell the story, as well as footage from a tribute concert.
Collectively, the mixed approaches illuminate a complicated man, at once spiritual and temperamental. The movie also evokes eras and places well, spanning bohemian California parties, drug dens and the jazz clubs where Morgan made his comeback.
2015 has been a great year for music docs, with films about Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain and the Wrecking Crew all scoring with audiences and critics. And here, at year's end, comes "Sound of Redemption" — as good as any.
"Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story."
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood, and Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena.