Review: Eclectic jazz percussionist remains enigmatic in documentary ‘Milford Graves Full Mantis’

Eclectic, esoteric and eccentric describes the documentary “Milford Graves Full Mantis,” as well as its subject, the renowned jazz drummer and percussionist. Yet despite its singular star and bursts of audio-visual vibrancy, the film may prove more ponderous and patience-testing than enlightening or involving for all but the most intrepid viewers.

Graves, an influential, pioneering talent and a decided Renaissance man, certainly deserves his celluloid close-up. But director Jake Meginsky and his co-director and co-editor, Neil Young (not the “Heart of Gold” one), both experimental musicians themselves, never quite find their groove as they attempt to cinematically echo Graves’ avant-garde free-jazz style.

The filmmakers allow Graves, now 76, to hold forth from his house in the South Jamaica area of Queens, New York, on a slew of topics — horticulture, martial arts (especially praying mantis-style), African culture, heart sounds, cosmic energy and more — without providing a truly workable shape, rhythm or framework for his heady verbiage.


Mixed in are extended archival clips from several of Graves’ distinctly powerful drumming and vocalizing performances, most memorably at a Japanese school for autistic kids. Unfortunately, we learn few particulars about most of these events until the closing credits.

Also by design, “Full Mantis” offers scant biographical data, musical history context or outside input, which inadvertently ends up blurring more than celebrating Graves’ exceptional place in the jazz canon.


‘Milford Graves Full Mantis’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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