The Lives of Quincy Jones'
Starring Quincy Jones
Directed by Ellen Weissbrod
Released by Warner Bros.
Quincy Jones is not your typical pop star.
Sure, he has a great track record. He produced his first chart-topper back in 1963,and has been on a roll ever since, winning Grammys and platinum-album awards at an awe-inspiring rate. Look him up in "The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits," however, and he seems barely a footnote -- a couple of Top-20 singles, and that's it.
How come? Because instead of making his mark as a singer or instrumentalist, as pop stars generally do, Quincy Jones' claim to fame has been his work as a producer and arranger. He's had quite a career -- among the singers he's worked with are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson -- but it's been the kind of success that only means something to the kind of fan who memorizes album credits.
And frankly, that's the trouble with "Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones." Producing and arranging is essentially behind the scenes work, but the film never really takes us there to show how it works. Instead, it just starts with the assumption that we know Jones is famous, and proceeds from there.
As a success story, it's pretty impressive. Jones hears a demo of Leslie Gore's "It's My Party," and turns it into a No. 1 single. Jones gets into the soundtrack business and writes scores for "The Pawnbroker" and "In Cold Blood." Jones moves to TV, writes "The Bill Cosby Show" theme and scores "Roots." Jones works on "The Wiz," hooks up with Michael Jackson and ends up producing "Thriller." It's not exactly great drama, but it makes one hell of a resume.
How he did all this is never really explained; we see singers singing and trumpeters playing, but Jones is limited to waving his arms like a conductor or scribbling notes on a score. Because the film never really takes us into the back room to show how recordings are made, his part in the whole thing is left unsaid.
Which is kind of ironic, considering how much talking there is in this movie. Rather than try to dramatize Jones' life, director Ellen Weissbrod treats it as a sort of all-star tribute, using an assortment of celebrity reminiscences to tell us about Jones. The approach has its merits -- Oprah Winfrey's description of how Jones talked her into "The Color Purple" is fascinating; Clark Terry's tales of racial discrimination in the '50s are hair-raising, and Michael Jackson's insistence on being interviewed in the dark is hysterical. But it tends to degenerate into an all-star stroke, shifting the movie's tone from documentary to hagiography.
Worse, the stream of faces is sometimes bewildering, both because they flick by so rapidly (Weissbrod skips from image to image at a pace that makes most music videos look leisurely) and because some of these faces are not as famous as the film thinks. (Does the name Benny Medina mean anything to you?)
As a result, "Listen Up" is as maddening as it is fascinating. Some sequences are must viewing for any music fan; others will seem incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't closely followed Jones's career. Even the music seems little more than a tease, since it's never offered in anything but snippets.
Listen up? Sure. But don't feel obliged to watch.