Review: ‘Bill Frisell,’ a Winning Portrait of a Very Nice Guitarist


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Bill Frisell, the subject of a documentary directed by Emma Franz.

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Film Transit International

Bill Frisell, the genre-spanning guitarist, is such a busy musician these days that a new documentary about him doesn’t feature any archival footage from his long career until about an hour and 20 minutes into its nearly two-hour running time. Early on in “Bill Frisell: A Portrait,” Mr. Frisell, a quiet, diffident man, tells an off-camera interviewer that when he gets up in the morning, he picks up a guitar, starts playing “and then …” he drifts off. The suggestion is that he never stops.

Directed by Emma Franz, this project has clearly been in the works for a long time. Three of its interviewees, all music greats, have died in recent years: the jazz guitarist Jim Hall, also a teacher of Mr. Frisell’s; the remarkable drummer Paul Motian, with whom Mr. Frisell played in a groundbreaking jazz trio with Joe Lovano; and the wonderful, albeit widely misunderstood, guitarist John Abercrombie, who provides an interesting technical analysis of Mr. Frisell’s style and tone, among the most distinctive and recognizable in contemporary music.

I am a fervent fan of Mr. Frisell’s. I’ve been following his work since the mid-1980s; I’ve seen him perform live twice this year, and might try to catch one of his shows this weekend at Jazz Standard.

Nevertheless, there are several points in this movie — which I’m still recommending — that I found, if not boring, a little dry. In a sense, Mr. Frisell, 66, is an entirely atypical contemporary musician. As the impresario and record producer Hal Willner notes early in the documentary, despite Mr. Frisell’s having performed or recorded with literally hundreds of other top-flight players and troubadours, “there’s no one who has a bad word to say about him.” Being a “no drama” person is lovely, and it’s particularly salutary that Mr. Frisell upends the myth that the great artist needs to be full of anger, or to behave badly, to be inspired.

These qualities, however, don’t always make entirely compelling cinema. A cab ride through London with Mr. Frisell’s former teacher, the composer and conductor Michael Gibbs, is frankly a little drowsy. Once the duo, who are working on a collaborative concert, reach their destination, a radio station, they are directed to a studio called “the Barbarella Room.”

On the way there, Mr. Frisell recalls what he remembers as “the only illegal thing” he has ever done: as a 15-year-old, gaining entry to a theatrical screening of “Barbarella,” the very tame, sex-in-outer-space ’60s film starring Jane Fonda, when the movie was restricted to viewers over 16. Which is funny.

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