SXSW FILM REVIEW: ‘Milford Graves Full Mantis’ An Out of This World Look at an Out There Man

You don’t need to listen to much Milford Graves to understand that the man is out there. His drumming transcends the next level, heading effortless up to a level or two beyond even that. Listening to him is an experience best described as religious, and as much as anyone, perhaps even more, he was responsible for freeing modern percussion from the shackles of beat keeping. In his hands, drumming is something more, something purer, something, truly, mystical.

As a purveyor of freeform, Graves has pushed the art of drumming as far as one man is able to push it. His is the rhythm of the heart, of life, of the vibrations of the universe itself. A new documentary, Milford Graves Full Mantis takes us inside the fascinating world of the drummer and gives us an insight into the man and his art that, honestly, we aren’t really prepared for.

Directed by longtime Graves student Jake Meginsky and Neil Young, Milford Graves Full Mantis is a film that’s as avant garde as the man himself. With this approach we are allowed unprecedented access to the man himself, and it achieves almost the same level of transcendence as its subject along the way. Unrestrained by convention, Full Mantis takes us deep into the mind-bending spiritualism that moves Graves and his music.

Like the music itself, the documentary is often a tough nut to crack and is absolutely not for everyone. Relying a lot of tangents in both storytelling and imagery, it’s more of a visceral experience than a learning one, though certainly it does provide its share of information. This is a film that aims to capture the feel of Graves more than anything else, and structurally it is often difficult.

All the better, really. A man like Graves isn’t easy to classify or put into a box, and this film captures that feeling beautifully. It’s an audacious approach, for sure, but never does the film try to keep you out from its secrets. Rather, it waits with its arms open, welcoming all who would deign to take a ride inside the mind of Graves.

Graves’s philosophy is one that only seems difficult, however. As the film shows, it’s really one of love and acceptance, and of recognizing the importance of art on the universal vibrations of the audience. Through his drumming, Graves attempts to tap into a power more primal and awesome than we are ever truly aware of. He becomes, in a sense, a beat keeper of the universe, expressing himself fully through the power of rhythm.

Milford Graves Full Mantis is a truly fascinating work about a fascinating man. Graves fans, and fans of freeform jazz in general, will find a lot to love about the film. Allowing us this look inside his life and mind opens the doors to expression that we never knew existed. Like the man himself, the film gives us an almost entirely new way to look at and appreciate the art of drumming. For that, we are blessed.

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