At 85 years old, Quincy Jones is one of the most influential people in the history of recorded music, yet I would guess that, in 2018, many casual music fans would be hard-pressed to explain what exactly he actually did. Jones’ name has been legendary in music circles for more than half a century, but much of his résumé consists of terms and vocations that are now obsolete, at least as far as mainstream pop is concerned. He was a trumpet prodigy who befriended Ray Charles and joined Lionel Hampton’s band while still a teenager. Before turning 30, he’d become one of the most in-demand arrangers in the biz and the musical consigliere to Frank Sinatra. By the 1970s, he was the quintessential superproducer and “record man,” an indefatigable hit-maker and general entertainment-industry Svengali. He did all this even before he began a collaboration with ex-Motown star Michael Jackson that would reach its apex in 1982 with Thriller, the most commercially successful album ever made. And yet most of these honorifics would be nearly unintelligible to someone who’s grown up listening to 21st-century pop, rendered so by both prevailing trends as well as a music industry that’s spent the past two decades in upheaval. It might, then, be time to reconsider: Who is Quincy Jones?
Quincy, a new Netflix documentary that comes to the service and some theaters on Sept. 21, is out to answer that question for the streaming generation. Quincy is a labor of love, quite literally: Jones’ daughter Rashida wrote and directed the film, in collaboration with Alan Hicks. It’s an enjoyable and intermittently revelatory documentary that does a fine job of celebrating its subject’s accomplishments while never quite achieving the degree of intimacy that it strives for and occasionally pretends to achieve. In a way this is fitting and even well-deserved: Jones is one of the most formidable shot callers in the history of the entertainment biz, and one gets the sense that the vision of himself being put forward here is as fastidiously curated by him as it is by the film’s directors.
Quincy essentially consists of two intermingled parts. The first is a fairly standard, voice-over–driven narration of the trajectory of Jones’ extraordinary life. This is mostly provided by Jones himself, although occasionally other voices creep in, including ex-wives Jeri Caldwell and Peggy Lipton and Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It’s somewhat unclear how many of these testimonials were newly recorded for the film, although paeans to Q from Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Nelson Mandela obviously were not. The second part is a quasi-verité travelogue through Jones’ own life over the past five years, including several health scares and a Herculean number of honorary appearances at festivals, conferences, and award shows across the globe. This second part, with its herky-jerky immediacy, often reminded me of the terrific 2009 Lil Wayne documentary The Carter, a film that Jones’ son, Quincy Jones III, actually co-produced.
Each of these threads has its charms, but the latter is more consistently rewarding, both for the gravity it brings to Jones’ health scares—probably the most unexpectedly powerful part of the film—and for the little moments that drive home how wonderful it must be to be Quincy Jones, or just to live in his orbit. On camera, Jones is warm, mischievous, profane, and hilarious, referring to nearly everyone he encounters as “honey” or “baby,” regardless of gender. A fleeting scene of a Christmas party shows the great jazz bassist John Clayton and his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, duetting on Christmas carols in Jones’ living room. At another point, Jones is talking excitedly to the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and exclaims, “Isn’t it astounding, man, when you look at the reality of us having the same 12 notes for 710 years? Everybody! Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Basie, Bo Diddley, Bird—the same fucking 12 notes! It’s heavy, man.” From a strictly musicological standpoint, this statement is questionable at best, but it’s still just an incredible thing to say.
Quincy is absolutely jampacked with celebrities: Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Tom Hanks, Oprah, Bono, and Will Smith are just a tiny fraction of the A-listers who grace the screen at some point or another. This is the movie’s right, of course, and they should all feel lucky to be in Q’s film. That said, the mind begins to numb after a while, and at just over two hours, Quincy is at least 30 minutes too long and somewhat incoherently paced. More time and attention is devoted to Jones’ largely forgotten 1989 album, Back on the Block, for instance, than to Michael Jackson’s 1979 masterpiece Off the Wall, which Jones arranged and co-produced. Sure, the former won Jones a much-coveted Album of the Year Grammy, but the latter is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums in the history of the universe.
Indeed, one of the stickier aspects of Jones’ legacy is the degree to which it’s been curated through the trappings of middlebrow prestige. Jones himself is a genius at this sort of slickness; Thriller is probably the greatest slick album ever made, a veritable cheat code to the entire 1980s entertainment industry. But nearly every piece of officially sanctioned Jones hagiography lingers on such facts as that he’s one of the precious few people with an EGOT and has the most Grammy nominations (and is tied for the second-most Grammy wins) of all time. This is a shame, because really, who gives a shit? Quincy Jones is so much more important than any of these awards. Off the Wall wasn’t even nominated for Album of the Year; the trophy for that year went to Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, a second-rate album by a third-rate artist, arguably the Grammys’ favorite genre of work. The only person with more Grammy wins than Quincy Jones is the late conductor Georg Solti; you’ve probably never heard of him until now, and your life is not about to become suddenly richer.
But step back and consider, for a moment, that the same man served as the musical right hand to both Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, two of the most consequential singers in American history who otherwise could have barely been more dissimilar. That’s insane. Furthermore, for all of the seeming old-fashioned–ness of much of Jones’ résumé, he was unquestionably ahead of his time, and one of the most remarkable aspects of his story is that a figure who spent the vast bulk of his long career as an embodiment of the musical “establishment” also managed to be so consistently visionary. Jones was singularly obsessed with the tearing down of barriers, be they social, musical, or entertainment-industrial. The biggest current pop stars are media-industrial complexes unto themselves: No one bats an eye when a star like Rihanna makes records, stars in movies, designs clothes, and co-owns a streaming service in addition to her own line of cosmetics. Quincy Jones had these types of visions before nearly anyone. He was a performer, a composer, a film producer, a television impresario, a magazine founder. He was show business and its future.
The Jones we meet in Quincy is a great dad with a great life, a guy whom other insanely famous people revere and respect, and that’s all great. But Quincy Jones is so much more than that, and I wish the film devoted a bit more attention to the detail and specificity that its subject deserves. Quincy is out to print the legend; it just never manages to quite get its story straight.
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