The new film Milford Graves Full Mantis is as much a visual poem as it is a documentary.
The film—which examines not just the career, but also the teachings of drummer/percussionist Milford Graves—will have its world premiere at this year’s International Film Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, which runs from Jan. 24 to Feb. 4. The movie will be screened as part of “Pan-African Cinema Today,” a program that includes short- and feature-length films, lectures, a virtual-reality installation and music.
Jake Meginsky, who co-directed the film with Neil Young, was living in Springfield, a quick drive to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst back in 2004. And as the Northeast plays host to a bevy of experimental improvisers, Meginsky was able to catch a Graves performance at the school.
Something about the show obviously reached Meginsky’s core.
About a year later, he drove up to Bennington College to ask the percussionist if he’d be able to take on a student. Graves, who worked at the Vermont school for 39 years, said yes, and Meginsky landed a gig up there to be closer to his mentor. The pair also worked a bit in South Jamaica, Queens, where Graves is based and first taught his brand of martial arts, Yara.
“By 2004, I was recording him telling certain stories from [his past] or what was going on with the recording he was doing,” said Meginsky, who used Graves’ home and extensive gardens in Queens as the film’s setting. “This movie … comes out of 14 years of working with Milford directly as a student. It’s a personal project.”
Full Mantis is fully focused on Graves’ voice. The drummer’s perceptions of art and living blend with impressionistic visual turns: glacial camera movements, stolen moments in the gardens and archival footage. Unlike a slew of recent music docs, though, Meginsky and Young’s film eschews talking-head specialists. Meginsky said that for him, as a viewer, when those arbiters of culture show up in a film, it’s not uncommon for him to zone out.
Graves’ career reaches back to the 1960s, when he began recording with free-jazz luminaries like Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan and Sonny Sharrock. The percussionist, who said he was waiting for someone to make a movie about his work, recalls garnering a bit of attention pretty early on, though.
“I was the new kid on the block, you know? Word got around: ‘You have to go see Milford Graves,’” the drummer said on New Year’s day. “People I had respect for … these guys were coming over to me and giving me high praise. They made me realize that maybe I had something.”
In a March 19, 1970, feature on drummers, DownBeat writer Jane Welch described Graves as “a serious man and a serious musician.” She wrote: “His way of life is on a high ethical plane and his playing reflects this. He is a ‘cultural nationalist’ who firmly believes that an artist can take all the necessary things from the existing environment and shape them creatively to suit his own needs.”
Graves is still at work, using the same perspective. And to the filmmaker, Full Mantis is a primary document, culled from more than a decade of knowing Graves, exploring his teachings and listening to discussions of the percussionist’s ideas and the “ways he conceptualizes the instrument and his creative process, in general.”
Meginsky called some of the material used in the film “hardcore archival” and said the movie’s name comes from Graves’ martial arts discipline.
“Milford was training his peers in his backyard in South Jamaica Queens—boxing and kung fu,” the director said, going on to detail a story of some folks being turned away from teachers in Chinatown because of their race. Graves, though, came to the conclusion that most martial arts masters study directly from nature. “So, he ordered a bunch of praying mantis eggs, hatched them in the garden and studied from the praying mantis.”
It’s that kind of intuition that spurs Graves’ discourse today. And over the course of the 90-minute film, viewers get to hear previously unreleased electronic music and see animation by Graves, as well as Super 8 footage of the drummer’s first tour of Japan and 16-mm footage of a tour in Belgium.