Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes (2023)
Directed by Sam Pollard and Ben Shapiro
As viewed at the 49th Annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)
More than 30 years in the making, this stunning look into the art and activism of the late, great drummer Max Roach opens our eyes to the complex life he led. He played with the greats, revolutionized music, and, in his own way, led the cultural revolution for African American rights.
Before the film’s opening credits begin, a short clip of archival footage shows Roach’s reaction to an interviewer’s question, “Can you use music as a weapon?” Roach’s reply was, “Sometimes the music is used to make people feel happy and joy. But on some occasions, we do use the music as a weapon against man’s inhumanity towards man.” With that quote, the tone is set for a film that highlights Max Roach’s music, his activism, and how the two intertwined.
It’s very clear that The Drum Also Waltzes is a passion project for directors Pollard and Shapiro. Both began work separately on documenting Max Roach’s life in the 80s. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Pollard captured extensive 16mm footage of Roach either on the road or in the studio. Shapiro was also at work in the 80s and 90s creating two documentaries about the master and had interviewed many of Max Roach’s contemporaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, and Elvin Jones. When the two men came together for this project, they had a well-stocked source of material to draw from. Their intention for this documentary was to show different chapters in Roach’s life and the different “Max” that inhabited those phases.
Roach even had his own archive in the Library of Congress with home videos and unreleased concert performances. Whether it’s his transformative work with Charlie Parker and the originators of Bebop, or his protest songs with his then wife Abbey Lincoln, this rich material is harmoniously arranged into the different chapters of Max’s life.
I was taken aback when I found out Fab 5 Freddy was Roach’s godson. To see the two men on stage performing together in the early 80s, when hip-hop was still a nascent art form, was both joyous and bittersweet. Why had I never seen that before? And why am I not seeing more collaborations of that quality today? We don’t need to get into that here. Go watch this film and see it for yourself.
I don’t feel the need to delve deeper into Roach’s activism. He was a passionate exponent of civil rights. If you wanna hear his thoughts on social justice, go watch this film because Mr. Roach said it best.
What I do want to point out is that this film makes it abundantly clear what it takes to be great. The dedication of this man is incredible. He gave his life to his art, and according to him it was only in his 60s that he felt as though he had mastered his craft. Along the way, he changed music, and he did it with hard work. That’s a lesson from which we can all learn.
Moreover, Max Roach’s passion is infectious. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is by admitting how much jazzier my Apple Music playlists have become. Let’s just say they swing.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is VERY CINEMA.