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I Called Him Morgan | Film Review

Analysis of I Called Him Morgan

As captivating as it can be, Kasper Collins’ 2016 documentary  I Called Him Morgan is a heart-wrenching film that shines light on the life and tragic death of 20th Century jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan in the wee hours of February 19, 1972, at Slugs’ Saloon– New York City’s famous jazz club. Through cross-cutting interviews and nostalgia-filled photographs and recordings, the film brings different people together like pieces of a puzzle to unearth the cause behind Morgan’s early death. His unforgotten achievements as a musician and his contribution to the jazz world lie in the accompanying background score throughout the film.  

Watch the trailer of I Called Him Morgan here:



I Called Him Morgan | Summary and Analysis

As an establishing shot, America’s winter blizzard of mid 20th century foreshadows the extreme weather condition that is a witness to some of the most important stages in Morgan’s life­, like his meeting with his future wife Helen More and his death. People who knew Morgan and More are introduced in the documentary, most of them being Morgan’s band members who knew the singer in and out. Fellow musicians praise him and marvel at his talent to communicate his story through music. They trace his rise in the music industry and the drug-addictive lifestyle that most celebrities happen to succumb to. Morgan too becomes an addict and in his mid-twenties, he loses his career. He defends his addiction by claiming the ability to control his trumpet but not drugs. No one hires him anymore and he trades off his coat in chilly winters to grab some heroin. At his low point, he meets Helen More in 1967 who is more than a decade older than him. She brings him back to life as a lover, as a best friend, as an agent, and somehow as an elder figure which Morgan seems to have missed in his life. 

We learn about Helen through different band members like Wayne Shorter, Paul West and Jymie Merritt, and obviously, Larry Reni Thomas whose tape recording serves as a crucial piece of evidence in this documentary. While the band members focus on More in relation to Morgan’s life, Thomas’ interview with Helen More gives us a more nuanced and personal take on her life. It is her side of the story we listen to through the recording. In one of the spellbinding scenes in the film, the close-up shot of the recorder with its tapes moving in a circle like two eyes watching us replace Helen’s otherwise absent figure, and it’s only her voice we hear the entire time. She recounts her self-made life and her disillusionment from a whole lot of things due to her pregnancies, widow status, and leaving her house– all in her teenage years. After moving to New York, she works as a voice on the answering machine due to the dearth of opportunities for women, especially black women in that era. Her network eventually grows, and credit to her house’s location becomes a hot spot for people from all walks of life. She delights in catering them with delicious food to exhibit her exceptional cooking skills. 

After Morgan renews his success, his relationship with More goes down the drain. A woman not to be tamed she does not bear Morgan’s infidelity right under her nose and chooses the cursed night of February 19, 1972, to confront him. Interestingly, Morgan’s then-girlfriend Judith Johnson recounts the foreshadowing of his death on New Year’s eve. He announces to her that something drastic was going to happen that year, not having the slightest hint about his ending days. 

So when the film reveals Helen More’s arrival at the club that night, we predict the future course of events. Morgan is performing at the club with his girlfriend in attendance. More asks his friend Paul West to notify Morgan about her presence. Morgan reprimands her which doesn’t go well. He drags her out of the club and she returns back only to shoot him with the gun she was carrying in her bag. 

An emotional turmoil engulfs More. The utter denial of the possibility of such an act by her is a powerful and sensitive scene. However, her aiming a shot at her husband in public paves the way for her imprisonment. After her release years later, she joins a church service to volunteer in improving destitute lives as well as an adult education system where she meets Larry Thomas who we owe for bringing out Helen’s story. His earlier impression of Helen as a woman who “wasn’t that academically sound, but she was streetwise” establishes her identity as a strong woman. He records the interview in 1996 that enables us to learn about her side of the story. The cracks in her voice evidence the emotions she experienced during her narration. However, the interview is obstructed by her grandson and no one knows anything more of her life as she dies in the subsequent month. 

The cinematography of the film is ingenious. Peppering the documentary with Lee Morgan’s exceptional skills at trumpeting connotes the immortality of a musician’s art. Even if an artist dies, his art stays alive in memories and heart and an artist’s art should stand indifferent to his personality. Though Morgan suffered from his own moral flaws, his mastery over trumpeting cannot be ruled out. 

Additionally, the simultaneous shots consisting of Helen More’s narratorial voice and Lee Morgan’s music career serve as a missing link to the life they both have lived before meeting each other. It was crucial to know the kind of people they were before they crossed each other’s paths. The film also juxtaposes Morgan’s music with his still shots from different moments of his life to ascribe them a sense of life. With gross earnings of US$ 128,986 worldwide, the film received a positive reception from its audience who applauded it as a story drawn between the nexus of love, music, and tragedy. 

On the whole, this documentary is not a murder mystery that needed to be resolved. It is a representation of the lives of two people who met each other by fate’s grace in order to complete one another. Their identities and personalities are shaped by the driving forces of love, respect, career, and most importantly– their mutual love for jazz. 








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