BY Willard Manus
Standing three feet high and sixty-five pounds, jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani bravely overcame physical handicaps to play with the likes of Charles Lloyd, Kenny Clarke, Clark Terry and Joe Henderson. Although he died young--at 36, in 1999--he left an indelible mark on the jazz world, thanks to his dazzling technique, ferocious energy and wide-ranging improvisational gifts.
Petrucciani was also a remarkable human being--a dwarf with a huge personality, a Rabelesian lust for wine, women and song. He was also a gifted raconteur (and fabulist), a loyal friend and--if an ex-wife is to be trusted--a mixture of saint and satan. The pianist's many sides are captured in MICHEL PETRUCCIANI, a new documentary written and directed by Michael Radford, the British moviemaker whose previous credits include Il Postino and 1984. The 35mm, 102-minute film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was screened recently at COL-COA, the annual French film festival in Los Angeles. MICHEL PETRUCCIANI will soon be released on DVD and CD.
Radford mixes archival footage, home movies and talking-heads to form his portrait of the piano virtuoso. Born in southern France to a guitarist father who also owned a small music shop, Petrucciani grew up listening to jazz. Kept out of school because of his disabilities, he concentrated on music; by fifteen he was playing in Europe with Kenny Clarke and Clark Terry.
Two years later, he took off for the USA, despite not speaking a word of English, and sought out one of his heroes, the sax player, Charles Lloyd, who was then semi-retired in Big Sur. Once Lloyd heard the young prodigy, he came down off the mountaintop and proceeded to tour with him on the West Coast for the next six years.
The always-restless, ever-ambitious Petrucciani then decided to take on New York. "It was the jazz center of the world," he explained, "the place where Coltrane and Monk and Miles were doing exciting things. I wanted to be a part of that scene."
One of the wonderful things about MICHEL PETRUCCIANI is the amount of music it contains, especially the archival footage of the pianist playing in 1980s clubs like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. He might have to be carried on stage and set down at the piano, like a child, but once he attacked the keys with that passionate intensity of his, he became not just an adult but a giant.
Also praiseworthy are the interviews with some of his ex-wives and girlfriends, all of whom were ultimately spurned by him but still could not help but marvel at his playfulness, magnetism and sexual prowess. The controversial issue of him opting to become a father despite the knowledge that his bone disease--osteogenesis imperfecta--might be hereditary is also addressed openly and honestly in the film.
These human qualities, combined with its many heartstopping musical passages, are what help make MICHEL PETRUCCIANI the superb jazz documentary it is.