No matter how objective a documentarian sets out to be, non-fiction films are always guided by a particular agenda. In the case of Kasper Collin and his new feature “I Called Him Morgan,” he seems intent on validating an age old saying. Namely, “behind every successful man, there is a woman”. Breaking the mold of similarly tragic rise-and-fall artist documentaries, Collin tells the story of Lee Morgan through an unexpected focus on the woman by his side.
That pivotal woman central to “I Called Him Morgan” is Helen Morgan, a name that lives on in infamy for fans of Lee Morgan and jazz as a whole. As his common-law wife, she was instrumental in helping him put his life and career back together after a debilitating struggle with heroin addiction. Though she was more than 10 years his senior, this unlikely pair formed a strong bond that enriched both of their lives. But on one fateful night in 1972, Helen became the cause of his ultimate demise. During a gig at a saloon called Slug’s, she fatally shot him while on stage, in a crime of passion that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Decades later, Helen revisits the experiences surrounding their relationship through a recorded interview. The result is this unorthodox biographical documentary of success, failure, love, betrayal, murder and redemption.
Indeed, the lives of Lee and Helen Morgan were nothing if not eventful. As Collin skillfully frames the narrative around a fortuitous interview with an aging Helen (arranged by her night school teacher during the early 1990s), the audience gets a keen sense of the struggle and ambition that characterized both of their personalities. Candid photos, as well as interviews with Lee’s friends, colleagues and admirers conjure up images of a flawed man who nevertheless possessed an impeccable sense of style and effortless charisma. Meanwhile, archival footage and choice song selections showcase his prodigious talent.
But despite Lee’s lofty reputation as a celebrated musician, the deeper character study is reserved for Helen. In her own words, she takes us on a journey that begins with a troubled childhood in rural North Carolina, marred by unwanted teenage pregnancy. Later, we learn of her move to New York City where she hustles to survive and eventually meets Lee. Gradually, her tale becomes a shocking true crime story recounted with impressively frank self-awareness.
However, as undeniably engaging as the film is, the unusual focus on Helen ends up feeling slightly misguided. And unlike other acclaimed music documentaries, it lacks the nakedly personal unseen footage that would have offered more insight into Lee. As such, there is a feeling of bias towards her perspective.
Ultimately, “I Called Him Morgan” is hardly a definitive Lee Morgan documentary for those craving a richer exploration of his evidently intriguing persona. But this commendable sophomore feature provides a strong calling card for Kasper Collin’s filmmaking skills. On top of his grippingly coherent storytelling, the use of music and grainy cinematography instills the perfect boozy “after hours” atmosphere synonymous with jazz music. Furthermore, Helen’s vivid recollection of her initial acquaintance with Lee adds a complex and crucially disarming romantic element to the story.
Still, Collin’s obvious attempt at her redemption doesn’t quite feel justified at the end. But to his credit, the film does also honor the bigger picture of the influence of Lee Morgan and jazz music as a whole. One scene, for example, recalls a song dedicated to the noted civil rights activist Angela Davis. In another, a musician explains the significance of jazz as “black classical music,” reminding audiences of a history that some detractors felt was recently misappropriated in “La La Land”. Both films succeed in championing the artform in their own way, however. Despite the solemn tone of “I Called Him Morgan,” it shares the same appreciation for the music’s beauty. But even more significantly, it also recognizes the great sacrifice often associated with artistic success, captured here to deeply tragic effect.
“I Called Him Morgan” releases in select theaters March 24.