In 1957, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, looking for what he called a “mind unbiased by scientific theory,” sent his 26-year-old secretary to Tanzania to observe chimpanzees in the wild and perhaps gain insight into human behavior. The study by that secretary — one Jane Goodall — continues to this day. Culled from recent interviews and over 100 hours of previously unseen footage, the documentary “Jane” is an intermittently effective biography, marred by a frequently intrusive score.
Initially, Goodall hoped that the chimps would get used to her presence and not run away when she approached. But that is exactly what happened on early expeditions. Today, as she candidly admits, “it was very clear that I wasn’t really learning anything much.”
A breakthrough came when some of the older animals grew to accept her, eventually allowing her to come close enough to observe their community — and distinct personalities. What she saw, she says, were “fellow beings, capable of joy and sorrow, fear and jealousy.”
At its best, “Jane” lets the footage speak for itself, as when we watch the organically developing drama unfold when chimpanzees tentatively approach Goodall and her camp to eat bananas. Unfortunately, the otherwise minimalist score by Philip Glass sometimes nudges the narrative into the territory of high-pitched melodrama, drowning out the animals’ vocalizations in a needless effort to enhance footage that would stand well enough on its own.
The swooning music is more apt when “Jane” turns to the mysteries of human — not animal — behavior and relationships. When Goodall made the revelatory discovery that chimpanzees use primitive tools, National Geographic magazine assigned photographer Hugo van Lawick to document her expedition. The two later married, and as their relationship developed, so did their study of chimpanzee society.
Director Brett Morgen chronicled a more volatile subject in his 2015 documentary “Cobain: Montage of Heck,” about the late musician Kurt Cobain. While that film frequently used animated drawings and diary entries to tell its story, “Jane” requires a subtler approach. But when the film turns to frenetic music and editing to juice up the action, it overwhelms and sensationalizes the subject matter.
As we observe a chimpanzee family grow together and then fall apart, we’re also shown the ups and downs of Goodall’s human family, as the film places the evolution of her research side by side with her growth as a human being and mother. For all the advancements that Goodall brought to our understanding of chimpanzees, the real lesson of “Jane” may be that it is connection — whether among humans or chimpanzees — that is the true measure of a species.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language and violent animal behavior. 90 minutes.