“Rewind & Play” re-presents a raw, quietly devastating, and sensitive portrait of Thelonious Monk

Alain Gomis’ revealing found-footage documentary closes out MMoCA’s 2023 Rooftop Cinema season on August 31 at sundown.
Against a TV program's black background, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk sits at a piano that has two glasses of water on the edge of the lid. The image captures him playing intensely, mid-motion.
Thelonious Monk plays solo piano on a Paris studio stage during the taping of a French television program in 1969.

Alain Gomis’ revealing found-footage documentary closes out MMoCA’s 2023 Rooftop Cinema season on August 31 at sundown.

In December 1969, avant-garde jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk arrived in Paris for a concert after three weeks of touring Europe. Before the performance, he was invited to appear on a television program called Jazz Portraits. The 30-minute show was to consist of Monk answering questions in a one-on-one setting in between playing solo piano. While working on a narrative feature about Monk, French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis discovered over two hours of unedited footage from the taping of this program. Gomis subtly reworks this archival material as Rewind & Play to reveal the dissonance between Monk and his white interviewer— jazz pianist Henri Renaud moonlighting as a journalist—thus deconstructing the discourse of the show.

Rewind & Play is at once a gripping behind-the-scenes look at the inner life of a genius, an unconventional music documentary, a hard-boiled lesson in media representation, and a powerful tribute to its subject. This unique work of found footage, screening as the finale to this summer’s Rooftop Cinema series on August 31, at 8 p.m., offers fans of Monk’s music a rare opportunity to see the artist in a different light. Tickets are $7, or free for Madison Museum of Contemporary Art members.

Gomis’ film begins with a sequence of Monk and his wife Nellie arriving in Paris. Monk silently smokes a cigarette, imbibes a drink at the bar, and makes the acquaintance of a puppy before the recording. At the television studio stage, people mill around and converse as Monk plays the piano. He then proceeds to engage in an increasingly awkward conversation with the program’s host. Renaud asks him meaningless questions, digresses into extended monologues, snaps his fingers to summon him back to the piano, and instructs him to play, restart, and eventually play something else (a “medium-type tune”). Throughout the so-called interview, Renaud seems to adopt a tone of condescending cordiality. 

Rewind & Play gradually illuminates the myriad ways in which Monk was casually dehumanized and exploited by the music industry both in America and abroad. While restoring its shooting chronology and preserving moments that were left out of the 1970 broadcast, Gomis skillfully arranges the footage to present a raw, quietly devastating, and sensitive portrait of a brilliant musician repeatedly subjected to institutional racism, microaggressions, invisible violence, and unrealistic expectations.

Through the editing process, Gomis creates a rhythm out of long takes, repetition, silences, and omissions. In doing so, Gomis conveys a pervasive sense of unease, while telling an alternate story to the spectacle manufactured for public consumption. In the original broadcast, almost all of the dialogue between Monk and Renaud was deleted. Only two innocuous questions were kept: “What is the title of this song?” and “Do you remember when you composed it?” Instead of telling his own story, Monk basically serves as a pretext for the host to present his point of view.

At times, witnessing Monk’s ordeal can be painful, shocking, and surreal. The 52-year-old sits at the piano, smiling politely and perspiring profusely in the glare of studio lights as his interlocutor speaks a foreign language that he does not comprehend—almost like a suspect subjected to a police interrogation. While his weariness and exasperation at such treatment are palpable, Monk maintains his composure and tacitly acquiesces to the demands upon him. 

Nevertheless, the intermittent scenes of Monk’s solo performances are dazzlingly beautiful as the enigmatic artist is finally permitted to express himself in the language he was most fluent in. These moments seem to be in perpetual dialogue with the chaotic environment of the TV studio stage; the music suggests a range of complex emotions, while offering Monk and viewers alike a spiritual respite from the harsh realities of racism, media bias, cultural commodification, and social alienation. In discovering and recontextualizing this footage more than 50 years later, Gomis succeeds in capturing, as closely as possible, the truth of what Monk experienced on that day.

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