[SXSW 2023] MAX ROACH: THE DRUM ALSO WALTZES -- A Musician's Biography With a Fascinating Social Angle
Review by Sean Boelman
Sam Pollard is one of the best documentarians working today, so his collaboration with Ben Shapiro, Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is naturally one of the most exciting nonfiction prospects of this year’s SXSW. Sure enough, the film delivers on its promise, giving us a great music doc with a fascinating social angle.
The movie tells the story of jazz musician Max Roach, whose ambitious and experimental approach to music was met with obstacles in the form of an industry and society that were unwelcoming to him. Roach’s story is absolutely fascinating on many levels, and Shapiro and Pollard have a clear understanding of what makes him interesting.
In terms of execution, the film is a somewhat standard biographical documentary, telling its story with a combination of archive footage and interviews. However, Shapiro and Pollard have such technical prowess as filmmakers that it manages to be engaging nonetheless. It also helps that they were able to assemble some high-profile interviewees including Questlove, Harry Belafonte, and Fab Five Freddy.
The part of the documentary that makes it unconventional is how it so expertly incorporates the societal context of Max Roach’s work. This seems to be the contribution of Pollard — as he has made several movies at this point that take well-known pop culture figures and tie them to their meaning as an activist or an influential voice in society.
Of course, the film also spends a great deal of time exploring Roach’s relevance in the musical community. Those who are familiar with the jazz genre are sure to be familiar with some of Roach’s work, but even those who are less acquainted with the genre are likely to admire the audacity and innovation of his work.
This movie has been decades in the making, and it was well worth the wait. Shapiro and Pollard have clearly spent countless hours scouring through archive materials, and it shows in the final result. Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is arguably one of the most deliberate documentaries made in recent memory.
The pacing really benefits from the experimental jazz soundtrack. There’s an undeniable energy to Roach’s work and that translates phenomenally to the film, as it gives it a level of kineticism that makes it far more interesting. Music fans will obviously be enchanted, but Shapiro and Pollard’s approach ensures that it is also widely accessible.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes can be somewhat conventional in its execution, but Shapiro and Pollard find the parts of the story that make it unconventional and emphasize those. As a result, it stands out pretty highly in the music documentary genre.
Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes is screening at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.