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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark, which can be found on Netflix.
It’s hard for me to not hear the name Nat King Cole and immediately think of that scene in American Beauty. You know, the one where Kevin Spacey’s character Lester Burnham bounces a plate of asparagus against the wall during dinner and then throws shade at the “Lawrence Welk shit” that has been bubbling along in the background while the tension in the room ramps up sharply. Lumping Nat King Cole in with Welk is one of those inaccurate oversimplifications that’s due to the fact that, generally speaking, most pre-Beatles music blends together for me into this bland vaguely beige-colored sound. Like perhaps most people under the age of 40, when I think of the “vocal jazz” genre I picture bombed out dollar bin records and Firestone Christmas compilations. Give me the cool New York Blue Note hard-bop and keep that mainstream slickness sliding out of Los Angeles to yourself, I think. Thankfully for me, this week’s documentary is Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark, directed by Jon Brewer, reframes not only Cole as an African-American artist coming to fame pre-Civil Rights Movement, but does an excellent job presenting the whole genre in a fascinating new light.
We’ve already dipped our beaks into this era of music here, with HBO’s massive Frank Sinatra doc All Or Nothing At All, which touched a little bit on the ways that Frank reshaped the racist practices of the Vegas clubs where he performed. Afraid of the Dark picks up where that film leaves off, on that front at least, confronting head on the racism of the time which feels even more harsh when meted out against a performer as famous and all around broadly appealing as Cole. “Straighten up and Fly Right” wasn’t just an early hit for him: it’s title could easily be seen as his approach to public life, while the verses, about a monkey who takes a malicious buzzard for a ride, loosely double as a metaphor the leverage Cole soon had in the not-entirely-color-blind entertainment industry. As a protagonist, Cole is a complex lens through which to view the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement. He was eager to please for the most part, picking and choosing the bigoted slights perpetrated against him and his family, and as such the absolutism of an “activist” label is far from a perfect fit, but he was certainly more towards that end of the spectrum than, say, (“I’m not black, I’m...”) OJ. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Above all, I walked away with a brand new appreciation of Cole as a musician. “Perfect,” and “Flawless” are adjectives used more than a few times by different people to describe his voice, technique, and all around precision, and that’s even after before you factor in his unparalleled abilities as a pianist. It was on the backs of Cole’s talent (along with his trio) that Capitol Records built their foundation starting in 1943. Sinatra might be their best known artist, but there’s a reason that their iconic stack of wax lookin building is referred to as "The House That Nat Built."
It’s tough to juggle the competing forces of narrative and concept in a music doc, but Afraid of the Dark pulls it off nicely, never letting the transitions between “then this happened” and the more subtle big-picture connections feel too rushed or arrhythmic. There isn’t a whole lot about this film, stylistically speaking, that pushed any boundaries but that’s a pretty light knock on the whole. The biggest complaint that I had at the end was with the way some of the interview subjects still dismiss the racism bullshit they were forced to endure. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it was a bummer when George Benson writes off Cole’s neighbors (presumably) burning the n-word into the family’s lawn as... community members just worried about their property values? Cole was the most tastefully middle of the road black artist around at the time, and someone still poisoned his family's dog after he moved into a lily white Hollywood neighborhood. Afraid of the Dark, indeed.
So, after watching this twice through I still prefer a stiffer beat to my jazz, but Afraid of the Dark went a long way to reveal some aspects of the industry from that era as well as highlight ways that I was taking the whole “vocal jazz” period for granted. It’s a well researched and thoughtfully put together film by a director I’d never heard of, whose work you should definitely expect to see more of in this column. I can all but guarantee that even Lester Burnham would find it informative.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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