“Man, that’s me up there on that screen – that’s what I’m about.” Full Mantis, the feature-length documentary honouring the work of avant-garde percussionist Milford Graves, is a kaleidoscopic portrait of an enigmatic, curious and mythic figure.
As a student of Graves for fifteen years, director and producer Jake Meginsky has an understanding with his subject that lends a beautiful empathy to the film. As Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth expressed, Meginsky and his co-director Neil Young, have tapped into Graves’ very particular sonic vocabulary.
The pair has managed a rare thing in creating a music documentary that takes on the form of a musical piece. The narrative progresses with hypnotic rhythm, aided by the soundtrack of Milford’s percussion.
As a pioneer of the New York free jazz movement and a master of polyrhythms, Graves’ sound, at times, makes for complex listening. We see footage of performances where Graves yells over the thrashing of the drums. Meginsky has said, “We both approached the material in an intuitive, rhythmic way in order to inject the film with the same sense of fluidity and intensity that are the hallmarks of Milford’s sound.”
For the entirety of its 90 minute running time, the only voice the audience hear from is
Graves’. As the film cuts between never-before-seen archival footage from his early career and interviews filmed over the fifteen years of mentorship, we oscillate between Graves’ younger and present self. The two appear to communicate, both through music and discourse, into a wonderfully cyclical narrative.
Percussionist, herbalist, martial artist, programmer, scientist, philosopher, and teacher, Graves’ contradicting identities all work together to inform his life philosophy, of which vibration is the key, “It comes down to vibration, which is motion. As human beings, if there’s no motion, we’re dead!” In one a poignant scene we see this put into practice when, on a tour through Japan, he performs at a school for children with autism. Accompanied by Japanese interpretive dancer Min Tanaka, the high-intensity performance continues until all the children are on their feet. One child in particular, seen sitting and pulling on his hair in the beginning, ends up standing directly in front of the drum kit to dance, in rapture, enthralled by the energy of the sound.
A natural teacher, Graves reflects deeply on a multitude of subjects as the film progresses, in what Moore described as, “a lexicon of thoughtful and mystic consciousness.” As the audience, we quickly become his students. There is a wonderful scene where he describes in complex detail how minor and major chords are related to the sympathetic nervous system.
His lengthy interpretations, like his music, at times veer into the bizarre. However, by the time the film comes to a close the audience is enveloped in Milford’s bizarre and beautiful world.
This is not a documentary solely for avant-garde jazz lovers; Graves’ curiosity and humour also spills out from the screen, and his unwavering hope in the healing power of music is infectious. Graves has said of the drum kit, ‘the equipment just can’t capture the energy of the music.’ The same can be said of film’s ability to capture the rhythm and energy of Graves’ life; and yet Full Mantis succeeds in coming very close.
You can hear his music on Albert Ayler’s Love Cry (1968), Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman (1969), and releases with the New York Art Quartet. For screening information visit the Full Mantis official website.
Directors Notes, Jake Meginsky.
Thurston Moore’s introduction at the BFI, July 2018.
Interview with Milford Graves in Bomb Magazine, 2018.