It’s somewhat of a surprise that it’s taken this long for a movie about Jaco Pastorius to be released. There have been major biographies of the bass master before – Charles Shaar Murray presented a spirited two-part tribute on BBC Radio, while Bill Milkowski’s book was exhaustive and well-researched but controversial in its unflinching detail. Then, around ten years ago, there were rumours that Johnny Depp was developing a biopic, but nothing came of that.
So it’s a great credit to producer Robert Trujillo and directors Paul Marchand/Stephen Kijak that the full-length documentary ‘Jaco’ has finally seen the light of day, and a great pleasure to report that it’s a classic, the epitaph this groundbreaking musician so richly deserved.
Jaco was the Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix of the electric bass, a musical trailblazer who fused deep grooves, lyrical melodies and a prodigious technique, and in the process helped bring his instrument from the back to the front of the stage.
Such an abundance of talent led to many memorable collaborations with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Gil Evans and John McLaughlin. With only a few notable exceptions, the film-makers have obtained interviews with all these key figures, and they add a rich, multi-faceted commentary to the film, thankfully at the expense of any ‘all-seeing eye’ voice-over – a great editorial decision. Joni’s pithy comments in particular led me straight back to listen to the albums again, describing working with Jaco as ‘asking another painter to join you on the canvas’. The film’s sound mix is fantastic too, overseen by Weather Report mixer Brian Risner.
‘Jaco’ also pulls off the tricky business of explaining exactly why his playing was so special in a way that is accessible to both the casual viewer and seasoned muso. Friend and producer Bobby Colomby perfectly explains Jaco’s smooth, horn-like legato technique. Wayne Shorter identifies how, in Pastorius’s hands, the ‘bass almost became incidental’ and puts him in the ‘superhero’ league alongside Coltrane, Miles and Bird, while Jerry Jemmott rightly characterises Jaco’s sound as unmistakably human, a universal ‘voice’.
Of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that Jaco’s story is also somewhat of a tragic one, but the second great editorial decision of the film-makers is the exuberant, celebratory tone of the first hour, especially the beautifully animated opening-credit sequence to the accompaniment of ‘Liberty City’, perfectly echoing Jaco’s infectious love of life and larger-than-life personality.
Directors Marchand and Kijak paint a colourful picture of South Florida in the ’50s and ’60s – described as a ‘cracker town’ by Jaco’s brother Bobby but also a musical smorgasbord of jazz, R’n’B, Cuban and classical sounds – using sumptuous library footage and lots of poignant Pastorius family home movies. As Jaco’s talent blossoms (intriguingly, we even see evidence of him playing a stand-up acoustic bass), he gigs with all the best Florida funk, soul and R’n’B bands of the ’60s and ’70s, led by a fascinating bunch of hard-boiled, road-savvy characters. But throughout this time, the abiding theme is of Jaco the dedicated family man, very close to his parents and an adoring father to his daughter and three sons.
We get some fascinating insights into the recording of Jaco’s legendary 1976 debut album and see rare in-studio photos and footage. Though he now had his pick of New York’s best musicians, Jaco insisted on bringing his old Florida pals onto the recording sessions with him; steel pan player Othello Molineaux recalls Jaco phoning him and telling him, ‘We got signed!’
The golden Weather Report years are beautifully rendered, with superb live footage and in-depth interviews with his rhythm section buddy Peter Erskine, though naturally a much darker tone pervades the film at this point; percussionist Bobby Thomas Jr. reveals that a tearful Jaco once confided in him that he believed he would die at 34, just one year short of the age that he actually passed away. The tacit implication is that Jaco was aware from a young age that he had a severe mental illness, though it tragically went untreated until the mid-1980s. Some viewers and Weather Report fans may also feel that Joe Zawinul gets rather rough treatment in the movie, invoked as a catalyst for many of Jaco’s problems, though just one look at the terrific on-stage footage reveals how close the two were as friends and musical comrades.
Jaco’s post-Weather Report career is unflinchingly handled, from the ‘superstar’ days of his solo tours of Japan to the low-points of his bipolar diagnosis and tenure in Bellevue Hospital. Drink and drug abuse are not glossed over – one contributor compares Jaco to John Belushi in the sense that he always felt that he had to be ‘on’ and put on a show for people, to the detriment of his mental and physical health. There are troubling photos of Jaco’s homeless days in New York and heartbreaking anecdotes about his return to Florida in 1986. Particularly poignant are the ansaphone messages to his father and wife. But, right to the end, the tone of the film is generally one of celebration rather than valediction.
‘Jaco’, then, is a triumph, a brilliantly-pieced-together portrait of one of the greatest musicians of the last 40 years and a superb epitaph for a golden age when ‘the musicians owned the music business’, as Lenny White puts it, a time when you might go and see Van Halen one night and Jaco or Return To Forever the next.
The film deserves as wide an audience as possible – don’t miss it. Who loves ya?
‘Jaco’ is released by Hudson Music.