Director/Screenwriter: Ian Knox
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Victor Frankl’s famous post-Holocaust book Man’s Search for Meaning poses the question of how a human being who has had everything taken away approaches the project of life anew without giving in to despair or craven indifference. This philosophical dilemma is one that virtually all people will face at one time or another. For renowned jazz guitarist Pat Martino, the dilemma came after emergency brain surgery that saved his life but wiped out all memory of his previous life, including his knowledge of how to play the guitar.
Director Ian Knox, infatuated with the personal enigma and music of Pat Martino after hearing him live for the first time at Ronnie Scott’s in London, teamed with Paul Broks, a British neuropsychologist and author who had written about Martino, to create a document not only about a music legend but also about the very nature of identity itself.
Martino Unstrung introduces us to the slim, silver-haired Martino, built as elegantly as a classic Gibson guitar, as he goes through a very ordinary routine of breakfast at a local diner in his hometown of Philadelphia. He moved back with his parents to recuperate after surgeons in Los Angeles removed a massive tumor in his cerebral cortex that had been growing for at least two decades. Martino, seemingly gentlemanly and unassuming, is a well-liked patron whose notoriety in the jazz world was unknown to the diner regulars. One of the owners talks about how he nervously discussed a Japanese woman he had met on a trip and his plans to ask her to marry him on his next trip. “We didn’t know he was famous,” she said.
Knox, with Broks as his narrator, takes us through Martino’s life and rise in the music world. His Italian father told him never to touch the guitar underneath the bed, using reverse psychology to get Pat interested. He began playing professionally when still a teenager. Lloyd Price, whom Knox interviews, said he heard Martino once and signed him to his big band. After that, a move to New York put Martino together with some of the greats of jazz, including Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Bobby Hutcherson, and Woody Herman. Other friends and admirers interviewed include Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, and Joe Pesci.
Interviews with Fred Simeone, Martino’s neurosurgeon, help us understand the nature of Martino’s malady, arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which Simeone describes vividly as a snake’s nest of blood vessels that feed off the blood of the surrounding brain tissue. Martino said he experienced seizures as young as 10 years of age. Later manifestations were described by Geri Taber, his first wife. He experienced explosive rages, behaved erratically, and drank excessively, alienating those who loved him and leading Taber to consent to shock treatments for him, something she says is the biggest regret of her life.
After Martino’s operation, his memory was almost entirely wiped out. He didn’t know his parents when he moved in with them. He saw photos of himself with friends and relatives, and it was like looking at his doppelganger. His father played his many recordings to him, telling him who he was in the world. All Pat could feel was alienated. His motor skills and musicality had not been injured during surgery, but he had to relearn the guitar. Virtually everyone says his playing is different now, more cerebral and cool. No longer, it seems, does he play so hard he breaks strings. Some like it better; some don’t.
I’ve been interested in the brain since I was a tween, and am a big fan of Oliver Sacks’ books. His A Leg to Stand On talks about his own ironic alienation from his leg after an injury “left him with the uncanny feeling of being ‘legless,’ and rais(ing) profound questions of the physical basis of identity.” For me, Broks picked up right where Sacks left off in exploring the fragility of identity. His observation that Martino lost a part of the brain that regulates emotion raises profound questions about whether he “feels” the music anymore. Neuropsychological tests Broks and his colleague run on Martino don’t answer the question, but they do find that other parts of Martino’s brain had been compensating for many of his early deficits when his AVM was in its formative stages. It would be easy to suppose his emotional centers could make a similar shift, but it may not be as simple as all that.
As a film, Martino Unstrung was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I’m not a big fan of British documentaries, which seem static and seek to dramatize the basic talking-head format in ineffective ways, like placing Dr. Simeone in a room full of light boxes and X-rays. The film often felt flat, as Knox seemed almost deliberately to portray the ascetic-looking Martino as a Martian, for example, shooting his face through a window reflecting the gaudy humanity of Times Square. I wanted more music, which, thankfully came faster and more dense as the film progressed and saved what had been a bit of a snore for me.
I’m a jazz fan, but Pat Martino, a musician’s musician, was barely a blip on my screen. Now, I’m seeking his before/after music and pondering what his story tells us about humanity. This is an interesting film worth your time. l