Our Saturday mornings and family gathering were created by the soundtrack of songs that take our parents to time of their early adulthood. For them, hearing the songs from that time conjures up nostalgic memories that places them right back to that time. This review features words from one of our parents, Ken Austin, about Lee Morgan and his death. A discovery that this film isn’t about Lee Morgan. This is Helen’s story.
The film’s music is undeniably Lee Morgan’s. The details of that eerie, surreal winter night which saw NYC’s storied East Village, blanketed in snow by one of the worst blizzards to hit New York, culminating in the death of a recently resurrected musical genius did, in fact, describe Lee Morgan’s last night on earth. But, I Called Him Morgan was not a film about Lee Morgan. This was a film about Helen Morgan. This was Helen Morgan’s story.
It was nevertheless, an important film. It details a country girl able to escape a life in Wilmington, North Carolina, characterized by abject poverty, complicated by her birthing of two children by the time she was fourteen. Her second life began when she miraculously found herself in New York City around the time when Jazz (a term that most of its players hated!) was firmly entrenched nationally and internationally. New York was the place to be seen and more importantly, to be heard if you were practitioners of what has come to be referred to as America’s indigenous art form.
What followed was Helen’s story and how she saved the life of Lee Morgan and ironically and disturbingly ended it as well.
– Ken Austin
This film isn’t about Lee Morgan. This film isn’t about the story of a young jazz musician who found success at the legendary Blue Note Records, hit rock bottom with a heroin addiction, and how he found his way back to the spotlight until his death at 33. This film isn’t about Lee Morgan. This film is really about Helen Morgan.
Helen was a woman who didn’t want to feel caged. At an early age, she decided she was far bigger than the cage of her hometown of Wilmington, NC. We don’t know the full circumstances, but by the age of 14 she had two children that were raised by her grandparents. She escaped the cage.
At the age of 17, Helen married a 39 year old man whom she had only known for a week. After his death, Helen found herself in New York City with his family.
As the film lays out the story of Lee with inserted commentary of Helen’s story. We are introduced to how their worlds merged. Helen was a nurturer and caregiver with meals and gatherings at her home. Although the filmmaker left the audience to infer how Lee and Helen met. Lee went from being a disheveled, drug addicted early jazz great to Helen’s husband and back on stage was a key element that was missing. Did he just show up at her front door or did they know each other when he was sober? This is an important detail that leaves the audience wondering.
Albeit absent from the story of how they first came to know one another, it’s no surprise that she rescued Lee and she nurtured his greatness back to the spotlight with jazz greats. It’s no surprise that Helen was deeply hurt when she felt Lee was building a cage around her. Under the guise of love.
Lee and Helen weren’t in the same cage for the two of them to build a life together. Lee finding his adolescence at 33 moved forward and explored with another woman, but wanted Helen to remain in the cage. Helen realized that life would no longer include the man she brought back from the gutter. The cage door locked with Lee on the other side.
Helen allowed herself to be vulnerable. Helen’s freedom, nurturing, redemption, and reconciliation were in the journey to right her wrongs with the death of Lee.
She wasn’t crazy like the mugshot that was plastered on the front page of the paper. In sharing her story with jazz disc jockey, Larry Reni Thomas, she recounts her seemingly out of body reality in the moments after his death. She was a woman that felt regret and continued to seek forgiveness.
A month after Helen shared her story with Larry, Helen passed away. The filmmaker accentuated this freedom with a scene of two birds flying in front of a setting sun. By finally telling her story, she had reconciled with herself. Helen was free.
While this was a unique biopic film that introduced new audiences to Lee Morgan. The film dragged on after the first hour, as some elements that weren’t critical to the story were extended, and the key elements that would have added richness to the story weren’t included. Helen’s story was the backdrop of a richly important story.
This film isn’t about Lee. It’s about Helen. As an audience, we would’ve liked to understand more about her.
Thoughts from the doctor:
Early in the film, Helen casually mentions that she left her two young babies with her grandparents to raise. She casually makes mention of this decision without any voicing of regret or even guilt. However the remainder of her life takes an interesting turn, but not so surprising from my psychiatric lens. She goes on to become the nurturer, the rehabilitator and the provider of those around her. She was the person who made sure bellies were full and no one was left without a coat in NYC’s blistering winter. She essentially became the “mother” of her community. It’s very possible this was her compensation for the abandonment of her biological children. This is her way of making her wrongs right which is a theme that we see throughout Helen’s life.
We are in agreement, we rate this film: Home. Pieces of the film’s story were absent or glossed over. How did they meet? Her story and role in his reemergence back to the jazz stage were explained in broken parts. The audience had to infer our own narrative about the woman who called him Morgan.
Since this film was done for a targeted audience, I would say watch at home. If you’re a jazz junkie like me, or a fan of documentaries treat yourself and go see it. The occasional viewer of human interest stories should watch at home.
“I Called Him Morgan”. Documentary directed by Kasper Collin. Run Time: 1 Hour, 32 Minutes.