One saint among many
Fans of the The Sopranos will watch The Many Saints of Newark, the new movie prequel to the six-season TV series, expecting to hear some good stuff on the sound track. They won’t be disappointed by a selection that runs from the Marvelettes’ “Danger Heartbreak Ahead” to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. (And don’t leave before the final song overlaying the closing credits: the exquisite “Calling All Angels” by Jane Siberry with k. d. lang.)
But there was one choice that surprised and even shocked me. I hadn’t read anything about film in advance, entirely on purpose, so I wasn’t aware of the key role played in the narrative by the four days of rioting in Newark, New Jersey during the long hot summer of 1967, when the city’s black population rose up in protest against the beating of a black cab driver by two white police officers.
The sequences depicting the uprising are brilliantly staged and powerfully affecting. They are also subtly accompanied by the strains of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, the five-minute studio recording made on November 18, 1963 and included the following year on the album Live at Birdland. My spine tingled when I heard it, but it also made me uncomfortable.
The piece is believed to have been composed by Coltrane in response to the bombing by white racists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16, 1963, in which four black schoolgirls died as they were changing into choir robes in the church basement. (Say their names: Carole Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.) It’s necessary only to mention Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders to evoke Alabama’s previous role as a key location in the civil rights struggle, but it’s fair to assume that, given the eight-week gap between the church bombing and the recording, Coltrane had that particularly tragedy on his mind.
The result was a piece of music that occupies a special place in the saxophonist’s history. The starkest and most distilled example of what might be called his hymnal mode, it reached his public at a time when the spiritual content of his music was beginning to make itself apparent. A couple of years later A Love Supreme would leave no doubt about his intentions (and after his death, a group of followers in San Francisco would set up the Church of St John Coltrane).
But in addition to its aura of spirituality, “Alabama” had a specific meaning. Ben Ratliff, the author of an excellent Coltrane biography, called it “an accurate psychological portrait of a time, a complicated mood that nobody else could render so well.” If anyone wanted to understand how Coltrane could begin to inspire awe, Ratcliff added, they needed to look no further than this track.
So was it legitimate for Alan Taylor, the director of The Many Saints of Newark, to co-opt this much revered musical prayer, divorcing it from its original meaning in order to underscore the drama of a cinematically rendered scene from a riot three years later in a different city, exploiting the piece’s authentic emotional depth in what is, for all its layers, essentially a Mob movie?
Of course it’s nice to know that it will now be heard for the first time by many of those who go to see the film. Some of them may wonder about the musician behind those few seconds of sound, and might pursue their interest further. And of course you could say that since “Alabama” was inspired by an episode from the civil rights struggle, it has hardly been wrenched out of its context. If I can’t help feeling a little uneasy, then perhaps I’m wrong.