Anyone with even a casual interest in jazz knows the name Nat Hentoff. Look on the back of landmark albums like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” or Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” and you’ll see Hentoff’s name, along with an articulate essay that will help you understand the music and feel it deeply.
Hentoff’s passion for jazz and his ardent defense of the 1st Amendment are the cornerstones of the engaging documentary “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff,” a brisk look at the extraordinary career of the 89-year-old writer. As the title implies, director David Lewis’ movie functions as mostly a highlights reel rather than an exhaustive look at Hentoff’s life. When a man counts both Thelonious Monk and Malcolm X as friends, there’s only so much ground an 86-minute movie can cover.
Hentoff himself, over the course of three long interviews, provides the film with its voice. Friends and colleagues — Hentoff’s second wife, Margot, fellow Village Voice veteran Karen Durbin and writer Stanley Crouch among them — fill in the blanks. The film moves fluidly between Hentoff’s career focus on the Constitution and jazz, his “two main reasons for being,” seeing freedom as the key to the beauty of both.
Margot mentions that Hentoff is always “itching for a fight,” but we see little of that in the congenial old-timer. Brief mention is made of Hentoff’s anti-abortion stance, which estranged him from many on the left, and also of what some see as a late embrace of feminism and AIDS awareness. Hentoff deflects the criticism, and a gentle push might have been warranted here. But that doesn’t diminish the pleasures that are on display.
‘The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff’
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills