After interviewing a host of legends in jazz world for his first film “Keep On’ Keepin’ On” to tell the story of the trumpeting great Clark Terry passing along what he knew to the next generation, Alan Hicks knew just how elusive they could be when it came to getting them on camera. Yet this was not the case with Quincy Jones, a former protege of Terry who Hicks would follow for a film of his own.
“With a traditional documentary crew, the biggest battle is to gain some trust, but Quincy would reach out to us and say, ‘Come on, man, this is going to be great,’” Hicks recalls with a smile, just days after “Quincy” made its triumphant premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. “He would actually call us up and say, ‘Man, I’m going to China in two days, you guys have got to come. You’re going to love it there.’ For three solid years, we just filmed him whenever we could and we just filmed all day, so we were able to get information about his life just by being a fly on the wall.”
The extraordinary access yields a worthy portrait of an artist without peer, observing the octogenarian Jones calling up Oprah Winfrey and Colin Powell to make sure they’ll show up to a concert to help christen the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, criss-crossing the globe from China to Cuba to mentor young musicians and finding the time in between to spend with his family. If his relentless drive is impressive now, the totality of it threatens to be overwhelming in “Quincy,” which Hicks co-directed with Jones’ daughter Rashida, yet Jones’ efforts to make people comfortable, whether with his music or in his company, allows for talk of accomplishments like arranging “Fly Me to the Moon” for Frank Sinatra and producing “Thriller” for Michael Jackson to seem like great stories he’s sharing with a friend rather than signs of his musical genius, with the filmmakers honoring a man who lives in the moment by blending past and present interviews to make it feel as if everything from his upbringing on the rough streets of Chicago on happened just yesterday.
Intriguingly, “Quincy” doesn’t overlook the costs of giving the world so much, delving into the marriages that failed due to Jones’ intensive work ethic (and notably the sacrifices his wives made before saying enough was enough) as well health scares that have reshifted his focus over the years. But as you watch Jones be able to say hello in every language and then some in every country he visits alongside a reflection on a career that began with Lionel Hampton asking him to join his band at 18 that would eventually lead to film composing, film and TV production, magazine publishing and humanitarian work, you know he wouldn’t have ever had it any other way, a citizen of the world who was always moving slightly ahead of its rotation. Following the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Hicks spoke about what it was like to keep up with Jones over the years, the benefits of co-directing the film with a member of the family, and being able to make a comprehensive portrait of a person whose career has spanned decades with a verve that reminds of Jones’ finest music.
How did you and Rashida Jones join forces on this?
I had just finished my first feature film, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” and during the course of that film, Quincy Jones just naturally became a character in it and he ended up really supporting the film when we finished, so I spent about a year touring the world with Quincy, just promoting the movie. During that time, I got to know Rashida, we became good mates, and she had a little 5D camera that she was starting to document her dad [with]. She asked whether I wanted to direct [a movie] with her and it was one of those things where it was, “Of course.” And that was really four years ago.
Did you have ideas at the start of this about what shape this could take or did you hit the ground running and worry about that later?
Rashida had some ideas about how how some of the other films in the past have focused so strongly on Quincy’s accolades and she was saying, “Nobody gets to know him as a man,” so one of the first things we talked about was, “Let’s try and get his personality out because that’s actually a large part of his success is him mixed with the talent [for music].” Then we set some parameters as well because with a guy like Quincy, you could do a 20-part series about his life so easily, but we wanted to give the audience the feeling of what it’s like to be in the inner circle with him, and to feel the ups and downs, just like in real life and get to know his personality., so we wanted to keep it to two hours. We also didn’t want to use any talking heads, and making a decision like that makes it tougher because you can’t really cut any corners. You’ve got to really utilize the archival footage and be able to tell the story without anybody telling the story.
But that’s part of what makes this so striking and not only are there no talking heads, but the way you utilize archival interviews alongside present-day interviews is seamless, as if it’s all taking place in the present. Was that difficult to achieve?
Yeah, we do have this relationship between the present and the past throughout the movie, so we keep going back in time and whenever we dip back, we wanted to try and find as many sound bites or visuals from that era as possible, so that when you’d land in that era, it is present tense, and to not have it be one of the stories that Quincy tells today. We wanted it to be the story from that time, so for example, there’s a moment where he has an aneurysm in the ‘70s where we were able to find audio from that period of him talking about that incident whereas if we had just done the traditional thing and interviewed him today, you’re talking 40 years down the track, it’s not as fresh and things can shift [in memory]. So the goal was to use that current time in as many places as we could, and there’s audio from Frank Sinatra in that period and really early audio from Ray Charles, and they give us the feeling of being there in the era.
Of course, the music plays such a role in establishing the era as well, was there a map to figure out how to include as much of it as you do at the right moments?
We wanted the music to tell a story as well, so you could just close your eyes and listen and you go on a musical journey. Obviously, we’re not going to get a composer to do this film because Quincy has got 3000 songs in his arsenal, so we hired a producer and a musician named Jasper Leak, who went through all of the songs and was able to organize them for us into mood, into decade, into instrumentation and [prepared] this spreadsheet, so we could come to him and say, “Hey, it’s the Chicago era and we need something that’s bluesy. Maybe something that’s lighter on the instrumentation” and he’d say, “Here’s 20 options, different things from Quincy’s career that could fit that.” Or “we need something that’s lush strings that’s melancholy,” and he’ll go, “Here’s 40 songs.” We were able to do that through the whole movie and have all of these amazing, targeted choices of music.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Quincy’s pulling out this acid-free box and he’s got like a hand-written budget from the 1960s – was he in fact a really good custodian of his own history or did you have to do much digging?
Well, his family’s been really supportive of him over the time and Lloyd Jones, his brother who’s since passed away, and [Lloyd’s] widow Gloria, they always took great care of keeping articles and photos and whatnot, so we were able to go through that archive and every day [you’d learn something new]. I had no idea about his friendship and affiliation with Nelson Mandela, but once we got going, I’m like, “Oh my God, this is deeper than you could even imagine.” We touch on it in the film, but in his life, that’s a 45-year friendship. And he’s always been involved in all these humanitarian programs – it’s not like he switched to that [later in life]. In the archive, [you’d find a box that] says “Correspondence with presidents” or “correspondence with Frank Sinatra,” so every single day, there was something.
As you show, it’s the product of a life lived to the max, but one of the themes that really stood out to me is how Quincy constantly struggled to strike the right work/life balance. Was that something that piqued your interest from the start?
It emerged more over time. Once I was brought on and we started filming, Quincy nearly passes away – that happens quite quickly [in making the film] and that shook me up. Not only are we good mates, but we’ve just started a film on him and you really want the subject to be able to see the movie. Once he started to recover from that and then he stopped drinking, he became very open about the fact that he does overwork and when we started to piece the film together, you see these patterns really emerge. I’ve heard Quincy say he didn’t even realize until he watched the movie, this pattern in his life of working himself so hard that he nearly drops off and it’s hard stuff to put into a movie because it’s graphic and the subject may not like it, but Rashida and I [thought] we should tell the real story here of what happened. Now that Quincy’s been able to see it, it’s a reminder for him too of his limitations.
Was it good collaborating with Rashida, having both those perspectives of inside the family and you as an outsider?
It was great. I’ve never been so creatively aligned with somebody before and she obviously knows so much about her dad that I could never understand, but she would also push to be edgier in the movie too because she just wanted to tell that real story. [And while] I’m the outsider looking in, I’m also a musician, so my big focus on Quincy is his music. I’ve always been following Quincy since I first got into playing music, so it was a really nice balance. She really knew his personality. I really knew his music and his career and I soon got to know him personally as well, so that balance in the edit was great.
If you were concerned at the start he might not get to see the final product, what was it like premiering in Toronto where you could see him being appreciated?
It’s crazy, man. Once you finish a movie, you have no idea how it’s going to be received. You just know you either like it or you don’t and I felt very good about this film when we finished it. But to have it premiere at Toronto to a theater of 2800 people and a standing ovation started before the movie finished and then they found out Quincy was there, so then another standing ovation happened. It was just surreal and Quincy’s life is worth celebrating because he’s been so integral in the development of American music, but beyond that, the film covers a lot of racial issues and it’s almost a comment on society right now, so that people are understanding that is great.