Netflix's 'Quincy' Makes the Remarkable Life of a Legendary Producer Relatively Ordinary
There's a truism that the artists who make for the best interview subjects are often at the beginning or the end of their careers. The thinking is that the rising stars have a vulnerability, an eagerness to tell their story, and a lack of cynicism about the larger entertainment journalism apparatus that makes them fun to talk to; on the other end of the spectrum, the older stars have nothing to lose, more wisdom to impart, and a willingness to reveal their true self. Quincy Jones, the subject of both a recent GQprofile and a widely shared interview with Vulture, is the epitome of the latter, a music industry legend who has seen it all and isn't afraid to share what he's learned. Like, say, an anecdote about Marlon Brando having sex with Richard Pryor.
These two recent interviews were so controversial, aggregated by content-hungry websites and screen-shotted by readers on social media obsessed with tossed-off quotes like "you like Brazilian music?" and "he’d fuck a mailbox," that they actually led to a follow-up statement from the 85-year-old producer and composer where he apologized for his "wordvomit" and attempted to put out some fires with the people he offended. The note, which lacked the free-wheeling candor of his interviews, said that his six daughters had staged a "family intervention" to address "some silly things" he'd said. Even for an aging public figure, there's still an image to maintain.
The biographical documentary Quincy, which debuted on Netflix September 24, was co-directed by one of those intervening daughters, Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones, and is pitched somewhere between the joyful frankness of the Vulture interview and the PR-friendly tone of the apology statement. Like many recent nonfiction films made by family members of significant figures -- Netflix's recent Joan Didion portrait, which was directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, or the recent HBO doc about Nora Ephron, which was directed by her son Jacob Bernstein -- Quincy offers access and intimacy, but occasionally skimps on psychological nuance or insight into the work itself.
As a subject, Jones has lived one of those rollicking, shape-shifting American lives that's difficult to condense into a two-hour narrative. (In the GQ profile, Jones jokingly referred to himself as the "the Ghetto [Forrest] Gump.") We learn of his childhood in the South Side of Chicago during the Great Depression, a period defined by traumatic violence and a tumultuous family life; then he's off to Seattle, where he got his start as a musician and linked up with band leader Lionel Hamilton, who took him on his first tour; soon he's crashing New York's jazz scene in the 1950s, learning from giants of the genre and playing venues like Birdland; blink and he's in Paris, studying classical music. This is all before he teams up with famous collaborators like Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.
Jones's curiosity about different genres -- at one point, he talks about Duke Ellington telling him he needed to help "decategorize" music -- is reflected in the film, which opens with him sitting for a podcast interview with hip-hop elder statesman Dr. Dre and later makes a point of showing him chatting with Kendrick Lamar. The viewer is also given a sense of just how exhausting the business of being Quincy Jones can be: Flying across the country from gig to gig, staying out all night partying at galas, and putting in long hours at the studio can put a strain on your body. The movie pings between the past, where we see Jones luxuriating in his workaholic lifestyle, and the present, where the decades of nonstop activity have begun to take their physical, mental, and emotional toll. "He wasn't even of this world," says his ex-wife (and Rashida's mother) Peggy Lipton in voice-over at one point, describing her husband's breakdown following the production of 1985's The Color Purple, which quickly followed the monster global-success of Thriller.
To give the present-day footage a sense of urgency, the story builds towards a climactic performance celebrating the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Known as a man with an unparalleled rolodex of famous names, Jones is tasked with producing the event, and some of the scenes of him finessing the nitty-gritty details, working the phones and overseeing rehearsals, have a low-key, fly-on-the-wall charm. Watching Jones personally dial up Colin Powell to get him to RSVP to the event is surreal. You end up wanting more of that and less of the (well-deserved) myth-making.
In a recent piece for TheNew York Times, critic Jon Caramanica mourned the loss of the glossy celebrity magazine profile, which he argues has been crippled primarily by image-conscious stars choosing to tell their own stories on social media. The same time period discussed in the essay has seen a mini-explosion of biographical documentaries, often about musicians and typically supported by the deep pockets of companies like Netflix, and many of these films suffer from the same problems Caramanica describes, particularly when they are produced and directed by filmmakers with a close proximity to the subject. He writes that we "miss out on what happens when someone in the room is pushing back," and it's hard to not feel that while watching a movie like Quincy. The ride shouldn't always be so smooth.
There's enough compelling archival material and honest reflection in Quincy to make it worth recommending to music fans looking for a deeper-than-Wikipedia history. He's lived a fascinating life, one that would probably benefit from being sliced into thinner slices. For example, Spike Lee's 2016 documentary about the making of Off the Wall, Michael Jackson's first record with Jones as a producer, offers a process-oriented look at his musical gifts. In comparison, Quincy is content with keeping things cozy; the man himself got where he is by taking big risks. After all, you don't win 28 Grammys and make headlines at the age of 85 by staying in your comfort zone.