Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary Movie Poster Image
Passionate docu about iconic jazz musician; drugs, alcohol.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 99 minutes

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Positive Messages

Music raises spiritual consciousness and brings cultures together. Advises optimism about the power of faith and the inherent beauty of humankind. When we are true to ourselves, the world is good. Those who seem lost can be redeemed. Never be satisfied; always push yourself further.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Coltrane was an inspired experimentalist and musical talent known for his determination and commitment and for pushing the musical envelope. Coltrane had a strong spiritual core; it guided his life. After a self-destructive period when young, he battled addiction to hard drugs and alcohol and won; stayed sober for his remaining years. Coltrane was a devoted family man, loyal father, and friend.  


Some disturbing photos and newsreel footage: racist behavior (i.e., Jim Crow segregated culture, KKK), dropping of atomic bomb in Nagasaki and its impact on civilians. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A key part of Coltrane's story is his early addiction to hard drugs and alcohol, as well as his permanent recovery. Smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is a film about a brilliant, innovative musician-composer whose intense devotion to life, faith, and his art had tremendous influence on music the world over. His talent, commitment to experimentalism thereby "expressing his soul," and prolific output shattered the traditional boundaries of jazz. He was a legend before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 40. This film, with Coltrane's music in the background, foreground, and at the heart of the story, uses interviews, film clips, photographs, and Coltrane's own words (read by Denzel Washington) to illuminate his life. Filmmaker John Scheinfeld and his on-camera witnesses don't attempt to downplay Coltrane's career-threatening addiction to hard drugs and alcohol as a young man. And, it emphasizes the drive and commitment it took to kick his habit and remain sober for the rest of his life. While there's no offensive language or sexuality, the movie is best for mature audiences. Occasional references to and film clips depicting historical racism and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki may be disturbing for younger viewers. 

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What's the story?

John Scheinfeld calls upon interviews with an extensive array of musicians and music historians as witnesses to his subject's legendary life in CHASING TRANE: THE JOHN COLTRANE DOCUMENTARY. In addition, the film uses photographs and film clips -- of Coltrane, his family and friends, and the culture in which he lived -- to illuminate the revolutionary saxophonist's story. And Denzel Washington, as Coltrane, reads from the musician's liner notes and transcribed interviews, so that it's all very personal. Foremost, Coltrane's music is featured throughout. His skills as both musical artist and composer are always either shown, heard, or talked about. From his early days as a very young man playing with Miles Davis to his years as the vanguard of experimental jazz with The John Coltrane Quartet, "Trane" broke new ground with his very personal and audacious music.

Is it any good?

The best thing about this documentary, besides the music, is the filmmaker's blending of the culture in which John Coltrane lived with the cutting-edge innovations he contributed to that culture. For Coltrane, the answer to everything is "truth." He found his truth by connecting with his faith and his music. As Coltrane says, "I don't play jazz; I play Coltrane." It's clear that John Scheinfeld wants to share Coltrane's truth with his film audience. "Free jazz," as the style that Coltrane actualized is often called, does not appeal to all, but this beautifully conceived and realized tribute to the artist makes Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary worth a look for all music lovers.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how music can both reflect the culture from which it emerges and change that culture. How is Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary a very good example of that concept?

  • Find out the meaning of the classification "free jazz." How does it differ from traditional and/or modern jazz?  

  • What character strengths and skills did John Coltrane call upon to get clean and sober in 1957? How did his faith play an important part in his efforts as well?

  • How does the rise of so many outlets for movies (e.g., streaming, DVD, cable channels) give both audiences and filmmakers new opportunities? Before these technological advances, would movies like this one have been able to reach a wide audience? A niche audience? What is a niche audience?

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