NC Heikin has become quite skilled at finding her way into high security prisons. After exposing the horrific conditions of the mostly impenetrable North Korean prison camps through the stories of inmates in her last film “Kimjongila,” she decided to do something even more audacious for her latest “Sound of Redemption” – stage a concert inside San Quentin.
“It took over a year to get permission to go in,” says Heikin, who was asked to submit a manifest that accounted for every screwdriver, every ladder, every light that went in and out of the Southern California prison. “They have a pretty solid wall of bureaucracy and they seemed to be short staffed, and there hadn’t been concerts there in a long, long time. We had to break through that. [Then] we had two hours to set up before we actually did the concert in a space I had never seen.”
Yet even once inside San Quentin, Heikin faced the arguably more daunting task of unlocking the story of Frank Morgan, a man unknown to even his friends and family during the 30 years he was in prison for various misdemeanors such as possession, forgery and petty theft. However, the resulting film “Sound of Redemption” goes down as smooth as his sax playing, which made him an underground legend in Los Angeles under the auspices of Charlie “Bird” Parker before a debilitating heroin addiction led him into a life of crime. That duality is represented well by Heikin, whose background was in musical theater before getting into filmmaking and is able to recruit an accomplished jazz band including trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, alto sax Mark Gross, bassist Ron Carter and alto Grace Kelly to play Morgan’s soulful compositions. Shortly before its debut at the L.A. Film Festival, she spoke about how crime novelist (and jazz aficionado) Michael Connelly pushed her towards her second jail break, bringing the story of a man who all but disappeared to vivid life, and why it was important to premiere in Los Angeles.
The idea came from Michael Connelly, who is an old friend, because he’s been a fan of Frank’s for a long time. He actually knew him a little bit and he just felt there was a story there. Then I went and listened to the music and was blown away. Anyone that plays like that has a soul, a big soul and I just felt compelled by him and his struggle as an artist. I thought I understood it, so that’s how I got interested.
Was the concert that’s the backbone for the film actually set up at the end of shooting as the culmination of everything or the beginning to set the tone?
That was actually at the very beginning of my thinking about it. I thought, okay, I love his music. How do I do the film? I wouldn’t know how to put a biopic together, I just don’t think I’d be good at it, so I needed to find a hook for myself. The fact that he had played at San Quentin with a big band, there was such history [there], [it was a] fascinating moment in the culture of jazz, but there’s no documentation of it. There’s one picture we found in an old San Quentin newspaper. There’s no footage, no recordings, so I just got this idea that there’s a way to bring it alive, to make it modern and not historical, to echo his mind and really find a way to express his experience would be to do a concert in the very place where he played. It was challenging and at the same time I thought this will really make the film sparkle in some way.
What was it like shooting there?
The day of was pretty crazy. We were nervous as all hell and also nobody knew what to expect in terms of the prisoners. We were all stunned to find these very polite men who seemed docile and innocent. Of course, you know they’re not, they’ve made some bad choices.
Did you know exactly how that concert would frame the film, specifically some of the musical choices?
I was mindful that it would be a storytelling device because we were telling the inmates Frank’s story, and I knew I could dip into that when I needed a little narrative without it being a voice over, so I asked the musicians who constructed the concert to work in the film and follow what I felt would be the emotional arc of Frank’s life. In terms of the other music I used, I picked things I found in Frank’s playing that were particularly emotional, then I actually commissioned a composer, this wonderful young man named Matt Savage, a jazz musician in his own right as a pianist, to do stuff that was absolutely in the same style as what we were doing all through this piece, so it’s largely based on bebop, but not super hard bop because that’s not exactly what Frank did.
Like your last film “Kimjongila,” which I understand you initially intended to follow one person and branched out, this film actually seemed to tell the story of an entire scene as much as an individual. Did you actually envision it that way from the start?
You always to put a couple of levels into what you’re doing and there’s Frank’s story, which is emblematic on a few things. It’s the story of a man who got addicted to heroin and heroin right now is, unfortunately, making a horrible comeback, so really getting inside what that felt like to be a heroin addict is one community that it talks about. And the jazz community, specifically the LA jazz community, was a special thing and the potential that you see is a special thing that very few people know about, so I was very proud to expose that a little more or bring people’s consciousness back to it.
There’s also the whole [feeling of] what it is to be a prisoner and what life is like inside a prison and what can music do to free you even if you’re still staying inside those walls. Obviously, Frank relied on his music to keep himself sane and alive and you could just feel in the room when we played at San Quentin what a huge gift it was, just for a couple of hours, for those guys to be absolutely free because they were allowed to live music. That was incredibly moving for all of us. Musicians all say that they’ve never forgotten it, it was one of the most amazing things they’ve ever done.
You have an incredible amount of archival interview footage, specifically of Frank’s mother, so much so I wondered if someone else had tried making a film about Frank’s life. Where did you get it from?
Jane Pauley did a show on Frank when he was just peaking, when he had gotten out and his career was taking off [in 1985]. She had a magazine show called “Changes,” about people who changed their lives and Frank was on the first show. He was one of the three subjects, so I went into NBC and they were fabulous about letting me look at all the outtakes with all the people they had interviewed. Most of them have passed, but it was a treasure trove, so I was very, very lucky. That’s where the mother stuff came, also Horace Tapscott who they didn’t actually put [into the show, but] was his childhood friend, came from those NBC archives. I got some real nuggets.
What’s it like to be premiering the film in Frank’s old stomping grounds of Los Angeles?
We could not have asked for a better place to premiere. It’s just perfect. This is where Frank came up and he lived here for a long stretch of his life when he was not incarcerated. The LA Film Festival has been absolutely wonderful with us in promoting the film and really championing us. They saw a very, very rough cut over a year ago that I was not at all ready to show them, but they gave us great notes and they nurtured us. We weren’t ready then, but when we were ready for this year, we showed it to them and they said yes. We just felt it was all the way it should be.
“Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story” opens in New York at the IFC Center on December 2nd. It will open in Los Angeles on December 18th.