“I think it’s best if we erase it,” says the interviewer to a man offscreen.  

In 1969, at the end of a European tour, Thelonious Monk made a final stop in France and filmed a special with French State Television. Though the station shot extensively, the footage never aired. In fact, it was never edited. Instead it remained archived; only small segments of Monk playing tunes were later released on DVD by Mosaic Records. 

For Rewind & Play, French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis accesses these remarkable reels (more than two hours), transforming the taping with Monk into an introspective essay on utterance, articulation, and clarity of speech, especially as it relates to assimilation and finessing one’s outward verbal expression for others, both sonic and verbal. In this case, an insidious racism is at play in interviewer Henri Renaud’s attempt to groom Monk for public consumption on French television. 

As the film opens, TV station personnel welcome Monk and his wife, Nellie, to Paris in a lengthy preamble to the actual studio recording. The crew moves with the musician from the airport to a car and then to a bar. A kind, warm Monk speaks very little; Nellie, when on camera, does most of the talking. Monk smiles, smokes, eats an egg, pets a dog. The disconnect between what appears to be the studio’s attempt to siphon some of his aura or genius by observing his every movement and Monk’s tangible disinterest in small talk, conversation fillers, and anything but making music keeps much of the work suspended: always circling, but never quite arriving at the event until far later.  

Still from Rewind & Play, dir. Alain Gomis, 2022

For the rest of this lean 66-minute work, Rewind & Play walks us through a bafflingly clumsy set of takes and retakes in which White interviewer Renaud unsuccessfully tries to coax lengthy responses from a taciturn Monk. Frequently, Renaud asks questions twice, attempting to extract a more artful answer than the matter-of-fact ones Monk provides, only to then add his own comments, which come across as attempts to construct a more refined image of Monk. This occurs, for instance, when Renaud asks, “Can you say something about the title ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’?” and Monk responds “She’s my wife and the mother of my kids”; or when Renaud presses Monk for more information as to why he “put your grand piano in the kitchen?” “Because it was the largest room. It was the only room the Baldwin grand would fit.” When Monk does deliver a longer answer, addressing an issue of equity in pay, Renaud translates Monk’s response into French, then says, “Bernard, I think it’s best if we erase it.” 

Watching and rewatching Rewind & Play, I kept thinking about Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe and his meditations on archives and violence his book Necropolitics: “to penetrate archival material means to revisit traces.” Archives, as Mbembe goes on to say, are often fashioned from “historical events submerged in the force of shadow.” Archives collect and memorialize, but how much of that is misremembering or is at the cost of cultural erasure, or is memory created by editing or editing out another’s voice?

One of the most compelling qualities of Rewind & Play is its presentation of the “traces.” Viewers see what we weren’t meant to — the embarrassing and, at times, cringeworthy footage of a state television apparatus fumbling through its efforts to acculturate one of the century’s great musical geniuses. With Gomis’s arrangement of footage, viewers bear witness to Monk as he subtly challenges his interlocutor, as well as the image that white Parisian television tries to construct, the process of its falling apart, and ultimately Monk’s effortlessly innovative compositions.

Rewind & Play will screen at the Walker Art Center (725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis, Minnesota) on January 20 and 21, 2023, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on March 10, 2023.

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Anthony Hawley

Anthony Hawley is a New York-based multidisciplinary artist and writer. Recent solo projects were presented by the Salina Art Center; CounterCurrent in partnership with the Menil Collection & Aurora...

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