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Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait

In Mark Kidel’s revealing documentary profile of the late, great Joe Zawinul, we come to understand the source of the composer-keyboardist’s mental and physical toughness, qualities that informed his outward swagger and fueled his supreme self-confidence throughout an illustrious career: Zawinul was sideman to Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley, co-leader of Weather Report with Wayne Shorter, and the leader of his Zawinul Syndicate for its 20-year run.

Born in 1932, Zawinul grew up under Hitler’s reign during the height of WWII. Life as a boy in wartime Vienna was marked by daily and nightly runs to the bomb shelter while existing under catastrophic economic conditions that made the United States’ Depression look like a picnic. In one moving sequence, when filmmaker Kidel returns to Zawinul’s old neighborhood of Edberg, Zawinul reminisces about being 10 years old and seeing his best friend blown apart by an Allied air raid. We also hear him give a vivid account of battling rats on a daily basis in his home, armed with a stick that had a big nail protruding from it. From these and other gripping stories of his harsh, survivalist upbringing, we learn how Zawinul’s tough, Übermensch exterior came to be. But through the course of this insightful documentary, we also come to know the thoughtful, philosophical nature of this remarkably gifted man who, like Miles, never looked back and basked in nostalgia but preferred to look forward and embrace life in the moment. Consequently, rather than incorporating retro footage of Weather Report in concert, the musical sequences for this film shot in 2004 are strictly of his Syndicate lineup of that time, which featured bassist Linley Marthe, guitarist-vocalist Amit Chatterjee, drummer Nathaniel Townsley III, percussionist Manolo Badrena and vocalist Sabine Kabongo.

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