The musician Milford Graves is a rare example of a truly holistic artist. This stunning documentary, directed by Jake Meginsky with the assistance of Neil Young (a musician, but no relation to the rock star) does not offer anything like a conventional biography or career trajectory of the percussionist, who was and continues to be a unique force in jazz.
Among Mr. Graves’s signal achievements are his work with the pianist Paul Bley and his being a co-founder of the New York Art Quartet, an ensemble small in discography but enormous in influence. But this movie won’t tell you about that. Rather, “Milford Graves Full Mantis” throws you into the man’s world. (The title refers to a martial arts stance; Mr. Graves is a devotee.)
It opens with his own music playing underneath a montage of artifacts and instruments, scientific and musical, from the portion of his home in Queens (the exterior of which is beautifully adorned in stained glass and polished stones) that serves as his laboratory. It then cuts to some sizzling black-and-white footage of a 1973 performance. Even at its most frenetic and thundering, there’s a coherence to Mr. Graves’s drum work. That’s not an accident.
Mr. Graves, 76, speaks in this movie about his studies of heartbeats and discusses how the false perception of a human pulse being somehow metronomic has created an equally false consciousness with respect to music.
There are also anecdotes from his life, including a harrowing one about the shooting of one of his sons, and an uplifting one about performing for autistic children in Japan. You can get a lot of facts about Mr. Graves and his discography on the internet (and I recommend you do). This movie gives you, well, the man’s heart, and it’s a beautiful one.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.