I Called Him Morgan Review

In a New York City jazz club, Lee Morgan was shot and killed by Helen Moore…or Helen Morgan, as she was known. It was February 19, 1972. A blizzard raged in New York City. This is the central tragedy of I CALLED HIM MORGAN (2016), a documentary directed by Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin. But rather than define the picture by this crime, Collin uses the opportunity to show the tight-knit community that surrounded legendary jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan; and even, Lee and Helen’s love for each other.

I CALLED HIM MORGAN has a fortuitous find at its heart. One month before she died in March 1996, radio announcer and teacher Larry Reni Thomas interviewed Helen in Wilmington, North Carolina. She had left prison on parole shortly after killing Lee, and lived in her hometown ever since. She was active in the church. She had grandchildren and relationships with her own children, the oldest of which she had given birth to when she was 13. And Thomas, who was Helen’s teacher in adult classes, secured an interview with her. His tape runs throughout the film, creating a character study of Helen through her own words. In this way, I CALLED HIM MORGAN is almost a more effective profile of Helen than Lee.

But of course, plenty of backstory is given for both of them, but only so much as is necessary. Helen’s early life and childhood is addressed; Lee’s is not. What is necessary for this story is knowing that, as mentioned, Helen had her first child at 13 and another at 14, and that she yearned for a life outside her rural childhood. What is necessary for this story is knowing that Lee was essentially a childhood prodigy, playing professionally as early as 16. We see their lives in parallel (although Helen was considerably older than Lee) in New York City, where Helen had ended up after a short-lived marriage. Helen became a sort of matriarch of the neighborhood; her apartment door was always open and she was always cooking for friends, strangers, and yes, musicians. Lee was a rising star on Blue Note Records, playing with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and other jazz luminaries. Helen was a stable force. Lee fell into drug addiction. And then their lives crossed over, and Helen pulled Lee out of the gutter, literally, as colleague and friend Paul West puts it in the film.

And that’s where I CALLED HIM MORGAN truly succeeds. In juxtaposing youthful photos of Morgan and his colleagues/friends and contemporary interviews with those colleagues/friends, we get a sense of the years without Lee. We feel the loss of a relatively small number of interviewees as they describe their love not only for Lee, but Helen as well. Their warm feelings travel through time, illuminating a brother- and sisterhood with jazz music and shared experiences at its core. These are not concepts unique to Collin’s documentary. But it’s the silence, the footage of friends looking at old photos, and of course, the subject matter and the story’s inevitable, sad ending that lends weight to every recollection. This is not a story about Lee’s career. This is a story about Helen’s revival of Lee, and her spontaneous, angry destruction of his life. It’s a story about a group of people shaken by the loss of two dear friends. This story does not give context about Lee’s legacy and musical innovations via jazz experts or critics or, really, anyone. We know he played well but, more importantly, we know that the music was important to him. And that services the story of I CALLED HIM MORGAN; less is more, in that regard.

But as much as you may want to dislike or even hate Helen, I CALLED HIM MORGAN is not an indictment of the woman. It’s a portrait of two deeply troubled people and the friends who have come to forgive Lee, for his unreliable, heroin-fueled years, and even Helen, for her terrible act. It’s a beautiful, moving testament to the spirit of Lee Morgan and his common-law wife, Helen Morgan, whose jealousy of a potentially untoward relationship manifested in a violent act that was building throughout her hard life. Helen is not blameless, but she’s not evil either. She’s not excused. She’s understood.




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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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