“Mingus tries harder than anyone I know to walk naked.” - Nat Hentoff in the liner notes to Charles Mingus’ The Clown (1957).
His hubris makes you wonder why Nat Hentoff never said this about himself. It certainly is applicable. As the subject of David L. Lewis’ documentary The Pleasures of Being/Out of Step, showing in exclusive engagements throughout the summer, Hentoff carries a deep, sympathetic intellect with the kind of graceful confidence most outspoken cultural critics never know.
Nat Hentoff made his name alongside guys like Ralph Gleason and Ira Gitler writing about jazz at the height of its perceived mid-20th century powers, just before guitars, drugs, and sex took over American culture in the 1960s. Hentoff’s one of these guys whose contribution to the art form is so vast he never needed an instrument. As writer/historian John Gennarri says of Hentoff in the film, “He is a vital force in the history of jazz, one of a handful of non-musicians who if you’re telling the history of jazz in United States, he must be reckoned with.”
I was most familiar with Hentoff from the liner notes of my record collection and the reprints of music commentary from both DownBeat magazine and The Jazz Review. Yet Hentoff’s character emerged most at the The Village Voice where for over half a century his regular column tackled everything from jazz and the New York City folk scene of the 1960s to his staunch opposition to the death penalty and his support of the Invasion of Iraq. Hentoff appears driven by music and politics, at one point telling the camera, “The constitution and jazz are my two main reasons for being.”
For Hentoff there is a similar thread of free expression and personal truth flowing through both jazz and civil liberty. It is a thread Lewis’ documentary fails to fully explore. Lewis makes use of Hentoff’s jazz pedigree and draws in other New York City art curmudgeons such as Stanley Crouch and Amiri Baraku to authenticate Hentoff’s greater cultural contributions—founder of The Jazz Review, the scholarly journal of the genre, producer of The Sound of Jazz, running on CBS as part of The Seven Arts Series in 1957. Utilizing the tight and subtle narration and recitations of Hentoff’s articles by Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Homicide), the film makes a compelling case for his crucial involvement in American music.
However, the larger conflict looming beneath the film’s surface is swept under the rug in what appears to be Lewis’ attempt to establish Hentoff as a sympathetic character. Lewis calls on longtime ACLU president Aryeh Neier and First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams to establish Hentoff as a voice for civic issues. Lewis’ wants the viewer to see Hentoff as a force in larger public discussions by citing two major examples: Hentoff’s defense of the Nazi Party in the mid-1970s and his public declaration as pro-life in the 1980s.
The first issue finds Hentoff arguing the Nazis have a right to organize and march in Skokie, IL under the First Amendment. The catch was Skokie’s population; over half the town was Jewish with nearly one in ten community members being Holocaust survivors. When the matter is discussed with Regina Joskow, former VP of Verve Records, she not only recalls finding an exciting immediacy to Hentoff’s writing as a teen, but being swayed by Hentoff to be in favor of the Nazis' rights. She appears casual about being the lone soul amongst her friends defending Hentoff’s position despite her own family’s suffering during the Holocaust. As the director, Lewis avoids probing a deeper discussion through either footage or contemporary interviews with either Skokie residents, agitators, or the opposition.
The lack of investigation continues with the sudden visibility of Nat’s pro-life stance declared out of a widely publicized and politicized right-to-life case known as “Baby Jane Doe.” Lewis incorporates footage of Hentoff debating the issue with Anna Quindlen, amongst others, in the 1980s and allows Hentoff to defend his position in the present. Otherwise, the only voice discussing the issue is Hentoff’s pro-choice third wife Margot Goodman who says, “I think the minute you tell Nat someone is an underdog, like a fetus, he responds that way.”
Two major issues arise out of this statement. First, none of Hentoff’s six children or any of his ex-wives appear in the film. You get the impression the man had very few close friends and found it difficult to parent beneath the books and papers piled about his office. Second, Lewis never takes Hentoff to task for being an argumentative curmudgeon. Hentoff has total disregard for the feminist movement of the 1970s and seems to see the demand for the cultural visibility of homosexuality as a fad, or a less-than-serious issue. These are gaping holes Lewis fails to acknowledge in any serious way. Instead, he allows Hentoff to be a vanguard of the old school—the type of critic who seems unable to move on. Perhaps Lewis is hesitant to criticize or properly illuminate the complex and frustrating truth about Hentoff.
Instead the film’s light tone portrays Hentoff as one of the last great jolly killjoys, holding on to the truth as he sees it with a bit of wit and fervor. To a certain degree it works. Rather than explore the polarization of his character, Lewis allows Hentoff to be a sympathetic veteran of an era long gone by painting him as the last great champion of free speech. This seems to be the overarching contribution of Hentoff to American popular culture, his relentless defense of civil liberties and pursuit of civil rights—no worries he explains the difference. Much like jazz, Hentoff is after free expression, right or wrong, sweet notes or sour.
Lewis constructs the film in a similar matter forgoing a linear narrative in favor of a thematic narrative established at the film’s beginning and then weaving together Hentoff’s life story through a menagerie of life-changing moments, political opinions, and moments with jazz greats, e.g. hearing Artie Shaw over a loud speaker outside a record store, championing the Black Power movement, and his camaraderie with bassist Charles Mingus. The viewer learns nothing of Hentoff’s childhood until midway through the film, yet his politics are defined in the opening montage.
Lewis succeeds in keeping the film’s jazz-like structure on beat, but his unwillingness to push Hentoff for explanations or provide commentary from adversaries willing to confront or criticize Hentoff undermines the overall experience. A great single-subject documentary can celebrate and criticize simultaneously, it is unfortunate Lewis fails to provide the investigation a polemic figure like Hentoff so obviously deserves.
The Pleasures of Being/Out of Step opens in NYC at the IFC Center on June 25 and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall July 4.