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Review: Eclectic guitarist gets his due in ‘Bill Frisell: A Portrait’

Bill Frisell with a guitar hand-painted by friend Claude Utley in the documentary "Bill Frisell: A Portrait."
(Emma Franz)

Many musicians claim their work is “unclassifiable,” but the term applies especially to Bill Frisell, who over the years has been filed under “jazz,” “rock,” “Americana” and even “classical.” The genteel guitarist will bring his mellifluous style and gentle atmospherics to anyone who needs it — from avant-garde adventurers like John Zorn to pop singers like Elvis Costello.

But Frisell’s professional eclecticism and personal modesty poses a challenge to documentarian Emma Franz’s film “Bill Frisell: A Portrait.” His life story isn’t especially dramatic — he’s too nice a guy for that — and his career has been so wide-ranging that it’s hard to shape into a narrative.

Franz’s solution is to compose “A Portrait” along the lines of a Frisell solo, with more digressive noodling than sharp hooks. The movie mixes interviews (mostly with the subject, but also with his colleagues) and fly-on-the-wall footage of Frisell going about his business, intercut with the occasional pieces of old performance footage.

It’s not all riveting, frankly. Some of the conversations and day-in-the-life sequences lack a clear point, beyond the filmmaker’s own fascination with Frisell as an ordinary guy.

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But the music is magnificent throughout, as it winds from atonal living room experiments to lush soundscapes played with a full orchestra. “A Portrait” may not make Frisell’s biography fascinating, but it does give the proper due to a guitarist whose music flows like water into any handy vessel.

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‘Bill Frisell: A Portrait’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle NoHo7, North Hollywood; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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