The last thing you want in a film about the sui generis jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk is a dry, academic chronology of his life and accomplishments. Thankfully, Adam Kahan's The Case of the Three Sided Dream avoids that approach.
There are no album-by-album summaries or stuffy assessments of Kirk's various phases by critics like Nat Hentoff or Stanley Crouch (not that I would mind the latter). Instead, Kahan combines traditional tropes like talking-head testimonials and reminiscences with archival video footage of Kirk in action and being interviewed along with eccentric animated sequences.
These elements emerge with the same impressionistic spontaneity that Kirk applied to his music-making. The transitions are surprising but never jarring. Kahan captures the iconoclastic multi-instrumentalist's freewheeling spirit through his loose-limbed directorial style—and by letting Kirk's music (a fiery, inventive confluence of hard bop, blues, free jazz, and R&B played on multiple reeds simultaneously) do much of the heavy lifting.
Details of Kirk's relatively brief life (1935–1977) and unconventional musical techniques—he often played the flute with his nose and used circular breathing to hold notes for extended lengths—emerge via interviews with his wife, son, friends, bandmates, and other collaborators. Blinded shortly after birth when a botched hospital procedure burned his corneas, Kirk exhibited at age 6 the sort of adventurous instincts that would characterize his musical career by cutting a garden hose and turning it into a wind instrument.
The poet Betty Neals observes that sound was Kirk's "one and only reality, his life. Rahsaan did things harmonically, melodically, sonically, physically that had never been seen or heard before or since. To know him was to know a trickster who was outspoken, political, driven, concerned. He had many agendas but also could laugh. Above all, he was a man who was in tune with his surroundings. I can still hear him say, 'Everything can be music if it's cultivated.'"
Like Max Roach, Kirk disliked the term "jazz," preferring "black classical music." The terminology reflected Kirk's unabashed pro-black sentiments. (He has a song titled "Blacknuss" that features only notes from the piano's black keys.) Even though he released music on prominent labels like Atlantic, Prestige, Verve, and Warner Bros., Kirk felt that black jazz musicians in America still were not receiving the respect and exposure on radio and television that they deserved.
Some of the film's most scintillating moments pertain to Kirk's subversion of mainstream television protocol, including disrupting the Dick Cavett Show with whistles during an interview with Trevor Howard, right at the point where the British actor says, "There are so few places [in New York] to hear good jazz music." The program went off the air during that outburst.
Three Sided Dream's highlight, though, is the scene where Kirk gathers jazz titans like Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes, and Archie Shepp for a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were contracted to do the beautiful yet innocuous Stevie Wonder ballad "My Cherie Amour," but instead Kirk and company tore through Mingus's uproarious "Haitian Fight Song." (The leader had prefaced the piece with the line "True black music will be heard tonight" and then gave a Swahili command to begin.)
Afterward, Sullivan spluttered "wonderful" over and over, but he looked mortified.
Another memorable vignette shows Kirk at a zoo with his son on his shoulders, playing his flute in an imitation of a coyote's cry. As pianist Rahn Burton notes, "Rahsaan would try to duplicate sounds he heard in ordinary life on his horns. He saw through his ears."
The Case of the Three Sided Dream reveals the powerful impact of the title's final word on Kirk's life. Dreams inspired his decision to play three saxes at once and to add "Rahsaan" to his name; that was no marketing ploy to exoticize himself and gain more record sales.
The film also portrays the indomitable urges that drove the Ohio-born Kirk to move to New York as a teenager to play music, to overcome the handicap of sightlessness, and to forge an innovative catalog that combined modified saxophones with props like alarm clocks, sirens, and whistles, to continue to play gigs and record, even after suffering a stroke at age 39 that left his right side partially paralyzed.
Some thought Kirk's act was gimmicky, but this witty sonic and political revolutionary dreamed himself into the pantheon through a rare ability to fuse oddly beautiful compositions, uncompromising political views, and whimsy. We shan't see his like again.