'Keep on Keepin' On'
If one were to script an idealized version of an inspirational documentary, chances are that it still wouldn’t come out as perfectly as ‘Keep on Keepin’ On’. This doc checks all the right boxes to achieve a certain brand of safe success. Sure, there’s a sticky aftertaste of it kind of being an advertisement for a concert tour, but that’s forgivable given all the genuine teary-eyed emotion that this sucker digs out in the process.
Alan Hicks’ debut documentary presents itself as being about one inspiring music hero, when it’s really about a new one who’s about shine. The surface subject is jazz legend Clark Terry. As a child, he was so desperate to become a trumpet player that he made his own makeshift trumpet. His neighbors were so impressed that they all chipped in to buy him a real one. (The movie provides no information about whether they came to regret that decision when the kid taught himself to play on the streets all day and every day, but the results were clearly worth it.) Terry quickly exploded into a remarkable talent and headlined several famous jazz bands. Amongst jazz aficionados, he’s a legend. Even to those who didn’t follow that world, he was a famous face thanks to his prominent place in ‘The Tonight Show’ band for a decade during the Johnny Carson years. Best off all, when Terry finally achieved his dreams, then he took on countless students as a mentor. One of them was Quincy Jones, and the rest is history.
When Hicks starts filming Terry, he’s not in the greatest place in his life. He’s very ill, essentially bedbound and starting to lose his eyesight. Yet his unwavering optimism and love of music keep him going. He’s a bright ball of light even when circumstances seem to make that impossible.
Enter Justin Kauflin, a 23-year-old piano prodigy who’s also blind. Hicks found Terry through Kauflin, a student colleague. Despite being decades younger and blind since childhood, Kauflin shares Terry’s joyous spirit and love of jazz, and is a remarkable musical talent in his own right. For years, the two meet and bond over music. Terry can’t play anymore, but he’s forgotten more about jazz than most will ever know, and through Kauflin he’s able to hear and share music he never dreamed he could be part of again. Their relationship is beautiful, their music remarkable. Kauflin inspires Terry through his physical ailments and Terry inspires Kauflin to become the great musician he always dreamed he could be.
Of course, it’s not like Kauflin explodes to the top. He struggles, but Terry believes and never lets his pupil’s confidence waver. Eventually, he introduces the boy to Quincy Jones, who is so impressed by the kid’s talent and personality that he invites Kauflin to join his band. It’s a magical climax that’s inevitable, yet earned.
There are many ways in which Hicks’ documentary survives off manipulative sentimentality (disability, illness, failure, struggle, hidden talent, triumph over adversity, etc.). All the usual heart-string pullers are here and trust me, Hicks leaves no string unpulled. And yet, there’s no denying what a beautiful story it is and what wonderful, worthy subjects Kauflin and Terry truly are. The story might be familiar, and in fiction would probably be unbearable. But in a documentary, you can get away with such things through the safety net of reality, especially when the story works this well.
Even if you think you’re above all the tricks that Hicks pulls and the heartbreaking moments he finds, his film is still deeply affecting. Even when the movie ultimately turns into an advertisement for Quincy Jones’ band and the “discovery” sequence unfolds in a very calculated way made to look like it’s an unexpected incident, the film still works. It’s just that strong of a story about two deeply lovable people who deserve this brand of sugary-sweet love letter. ‘Keep on Keepin’ On’ is no masterpiece or game-changing documentary, but it’s a beautiful little story well worth experiencing. Audiences won’t buy these stories if you make ’em up anymore, but find the real thing and the old magic is still there.