"Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones" is a joyous psychodynamic jumble, a Jackson Pollock-splashy documentary that moves to the rhythms of one man's life. An associative torrent of music and memories, this nonlinear biography draws organic connections, hip-hopping and be-bopping through the moments of Jones's times.
Directed by Ellen Weissbrod and produced by Courtney Sale Ross, "Listen Up" ties past to present with dizzying flair. In its way the film provides a catharsis for the prolific music man who, at the filmmakers' suggestion, travels to the South Side of Chicago to revisit his childhood. Painful memories come flooding back with the music they inspired as Quincy Jones pokes around his old row house and the corners of his mind. He remembers his mother, who was institutionalized for mental illness, and his father, "a beautiful man" who moved the family to Seattle, where the teenage Quincy, a trumpeter, formed a band with his friend Ray Charles.
Charles is caught singing his heart out during a recording session, rapturous as ever, head thrown back and feet jumping on the linoleum floor. The recording session ends, but Charles just keeps singing. And Jones remembers that when he complained to his old friend about playing polkas, Charles said, "Every music has its soul."
"Listen Up" humanizes a virtual horde of living legends who testify on Jones's behalf. And by asking them to introduce themselves to the camera, the filmmakers avoided the distraction of on-screen titles. "My name is Barbra ... Streisand," says the songstress, playing the diva's role. Michael Jackson agreed to do an off-camera interview in the dark, which Weissbrod wryly accompanies with a shot of the interviewer holding a flashlight on her list of questions.
Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Alex Haley, Herbie Hancock, Jesse Jackson, Chan Parker, Billy Eckstine, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg and Michel Legrand are among the luminaries who take the time to say, "Quincy, this is your life." In all, four generations of musicians -- from swing to rap -- remember making music with him. "There's one family of music and I'm glad to be a part of that," says Jones, who put his belief to work in "We Are the World."
"Listen Up" does much more than tell a life story, touching as it does so eloquently on the history of race relations in America through its music. "I don't want to hear those kind of questions today," says an emotional Ella Fitzgerald, who like many of the older black musicians doesn't want to remember the humiliations she suffered. A flurry of quick cuts to rap musicians Big Daddy Kane and Flavor Flav and stock footage of rioting in Bensonhurst remind us of the ongoing strife among the races. Sad as that may be, the movie's overall message is an inspirational one, a promise of harmony. If Quincy Jones overcame poverty, illness and social injustice, so can we.
Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.