CIMMfest 09: Martino Unstrung (2008)

Director/Screenwriter: Ian Knox

CIMMfest 09: The Chicago Movies and Music Festival

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Interviews with Ian Knox and Pat Martino by Victor L. Schermer in All About Jazz can be found here. Pat Martino’s website is here.

Trailer

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    5th/03/2009 to 1:17 pm

    I’m a jazz fan, but Pat Martino, a musician’s musician, was barely a blip on my screen.
    Same here. Larry Aydlette and I have talked about jazz often online and in e-mails and I’ve probably read through the Penguin Guide two or three times consider jazz my favorite music (cool and big band especially) and I still wasn’t aware. But then, there are so many talented artists in the jazz world to discover. I learn about new ones every day.
    This story though – how awful to go through that. My memory is my life. I can’t imagine losing all of it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/03/2009 to 2:23 pm

    I think Martino is kind of a lost artist for me because his most productive years were in the 60s and then He kind of dropped away because of AVM. I didn’t know there were jazz guitarists between Les Paul and George Benson.

  • Don Archer spoke:
    2nd/05/2009 to 10:18 am

    I am now 71 years old. I started plating the guitar when I was 9 years old and my earliest influences were Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, as well as very early Les Paul & Mary Ford’s music.
    In my late teens I turned professional guitar player doing mostly country music but listening to players like Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel and Hank ‘Sugarfoot’ Garland. That was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
    I was always fascinated by Jazz music, then I heard a Jimmy Smith Trio album which really turned me on to organ jazz.
    Shortly thereafter I heard a new recording by organist Brother Jack McDuff that featured a new young guitarist named Pat Martino. His playing literally blew me away and since then I’ve been one of his biggest supporters and promoters.
    As far as I’m concerned he was and still is the greatest guitar player this planet has ever known. I’ve listened to and I own copies of everything he has ever recorded both before and after his AVM problem.
    His story is truly the most amazing story I’ve ever heard and I am so very pleased and proud to have had the opportunity to share his music and his story with hundreds and hundreds of players. I’ve even met him once when he played a gig in Phoenix a couple of years ago. It was without question the biggest thrill of my lifetime and I was privileged to get a picture of he and I together.
    What a very sweet and humble man he is! He took the time to talk to me and he accepted copies of my CD’s. His influence on my own playing and teaching methods is unmistakable.
    Pat, GOD bless you, and I love you.
    Most sincerely,
    Don Archer
    Tucson, Arizona

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/05/2009 to 11:26 am

    What a wonderful tribute, Don. Thanks for sharing your admiration of a great artist and person.

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