108. Duke Ellington / On the Road with Duke Ellington (1967)
On the Road is a documentary film from 1967 by Robert Drew. For an artist so prolific, Duke left behind precious few film documentaries. There is music performed in the film that'll give you goosebumps but the subject isn't the music itself, it's Duke and how he lives and works. The picture is grainy and saturated like an old Super 8, the audio is muddy, and you'll instantly disregard that because from the outset, you're aware that this is the best film on Duke Ellington that there is. It's delicious, for a Duke fan like me. The camera follows him in his daily routine as he opens his mail, lingers too long backstage on the piano, composes a new tune, or has his breakfast -- hot water, steak and potato, the same breakfast he's had for 40 years. Duke is a funny, funny guy. He's an autocratic employer, an eloquent speaker, and madly devoted to his craft. You see him flirting with fans at the airport, or backstage having a natter with Louis Armstrong, just talking like two old friends, which is extremely interesting. The bottom line is that Duke Ellington runs the show whether it's on the road, at home, or accepting an honorary doctorate. He works all nighters while he's not performing and performs when he's not working. At one point, he tells the crew that he can't imagine what retirement means because stagnation will not look good on him. And it's true, he worked until his death six years later. I think I learned that if I truly want what I think I want, then I know I'm not working hard enough. Like a thunderstorm, the power, sophistication, and beauty of Duke's orchestras always excited and impressed me. Watching it happen in the making reinforced that notion.