Directed by Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak—2015—117 minutes
While viewing and reviewing the more than 150 films that are the subject of my upcoming book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey (available this fall), I came across several sad tales of musicians who have struggled with mental health issues while trying to make it in the hothouse business of touring and recording. This documentary about acclaimed jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius arrived a little late (2015) to fit into the book’s timeline, which is 1964-2014. Yet it follows a trajectory that is somewhat familiar—a talented but sometimes unpredictable person whose illness is slow to develop and hard to reconcile with when fully manifested.
Other musical bios of this ilk—What Happened, Miss Simone? and You’re Going to Miss Me: A Film about Roky Erickson jump to mind—seem to have this hurt and confusion built into their titles. Though this doc is simply called Jaco and is made with the protective approval of his family, it does not totally hide the pain in what is basically a straight tribute to a man who died in 1987. It’s produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s also one of the many musicians testifying here for a man much-loved by fans and contemporaries alike. Aside from the praise, Jaco’s story is interesting in and of itself. He grew up in south Florida, a super-energetic kid who played sports and loved music. Like his vocalist father, Pastorius was soon making the rounds as a player on the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami club circuit, first as a drummer then on the electric bass guitar.
This lesser-known geographical scene is described as a place “with no musical prejudice” and it’s a compelling notion borne out with the recollections of family members and old bandmates telling of an absorption in styles like jazz, rock, Afro-Caribbean and even a little country. From there, two distinct life trajectories take hold. First, Jaco was married and a first-time (but not last time) father while still of high school age. He would be married twice and often described as a family man. There are numerous home videos and snapshots of him with spouse and kids, frolicking on the beach, cartwheeling, playing football or Frisbee. Yet his prodigious talent did not go unnoticed or unexploited. So by age 21, he was in New York working with the likes of Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, even getting some session work on an early solo LP by ex-Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. This exuberant young man was a curious mixture of innocence and arrogance and he casually advertised himself as the “greatest bass player ever.”
Many fans and colleagues would soon agree. His playing style—elastic, expressive and often fierce—proved very popular outside the margins of the more traditional jazz fan base. The tendency to play fleet-fingered runs on his instrument’s upper register and his innate showmanship started drawing rock-audience crowds in 1975 after he joined the fusion band Weather Report with two Miles Davis alumni: keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This electric atmosphere is seen in late 70s concert footage, both in WR band numbers like their signature “Birdland” or in his solo spotlights where both his unique approach to fretless harmonics and his Pete Townshend-like theatrics were given free reign.
But though Pastorius was a key member of Weather Report for seven years (while also releasing a couple of well-received solo records) the informed viewer just knows that there’s trouble a-brewing and it arrives in due course. Jaco and Zawinul are described as “two cobras inside a very small cage” and the bassist as someone who “respected his jazz elders but wasn’t above ruffling their feathers” (Zawinul was almost twenty years older). Likewise, Joni Mitchell, on the lookout for “originals” to help define her widening musical horizons in the late Seventies, says she found a kindred soul in Pastorius but also soon found he could be a bit much to handle. And when you lose that jazz-player balance between individual expression and teamwork, things can go sour in a hurry. Jaco found this out at the Havana Jam in 1979 when he we into “self-destruct mode” for what should have been a sure-thing fusion power-trio jam with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.
Though Pastorius kept up his end for several years in the spotlight—living frugally on the road and sending money home to the family—substance abuse and extremely erratic behavior brought on by lingering mental health issues caught up with him in a big way. He was diagnosed as bipolar in 1982 and spent several weeks at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. But without much of a support system (at least from reading between the lines here) he was soon busking for spare change in Washington Square and eventually landed back in south Florida, one and off his meds and sleeping in a park. His demise could hardly have been sadder: he died days after being severely beaten by a bouncer for trying to kick his way into a nightclub that his volatile behavior got him banned from. The culprit ended up doing four months in jail.
I’m not suggesting that Trujillo and his two directors should have dwelled on all this overmuch, after all this is a tribute film and a fine one at that. But in the end, the short shrift given to Jaco’s troubled later years is a bit baffling. Maybe after all this time it just seems inevitable that he was one of those destined to leave us early. Pastorius told a friend once that he expected to die at age 34 and ended up being only a year off. So while the testimonials come early and often here (Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joni, Flea, Sting etc.) the full recognition of the mental health issue here seems lacking. His long-time bandmate Wayne Shorter grapples with this the most of anyone here, rhetorically asking “who’s to say that a chemical imbalance is a fault of nature” and suggesting it “ushers into action” a certain greatness otherwise unattainable. That has proven to be sometimes true but many fans may have traded a little less greatness for a longer life, and much more music-making, from Jaco the man. The legend could wait.