[After a 2nd viewing, I'm raising my rating and retracting any complaints about the visuals or content. The audio quality suffers, as stated below, because of a slightly muffled quality and limited treble response-sounding like the 2nd generation of a mediocre master tape. But Oscar's musicianship and his eloquence as a spokesperson for the music simply can't be denied. The film effectively communicates the spirit, the character, the camaraderie of musicians from an era of music preceding the rise and eventual dominance of rock and C&W music in American pop culture beginning in the 1960s. The film presents an equal mix of humor and tragedy--demonstrating the early challenges of racism and, later, the difficulties of reaching a large audience proportionate to the enormous talents responsible for creating music emphasizing, above all, "swing," the jazz tradition (Louis, Duke, Bird, Tatum, Basie, Nat), and "the Great American Songbook." Oscar is always congenial and approachable but also complex, expressing great love toward his musicians and even other piano players, whom he loves and feels no compulsion to "show up"--unless, he parenthetically adds, "they get in my way." Above all, viewers should take seriously Oscar's lavish praise on Norman Granz as the promoter who fearlessly and tirelessly put the music and his musicians first. Jazz, Oscar states, could never have gotten as far as it has without Granz, to whom Oscar gives credit for his own success as well as any enjoyed by the music. (In recent years the "Blue Note story" has grown from a version of jazz history favored by a cultish to an overblown myth overshadowing the authentic story. If jazz was built on the talents of Louis, Duke, Basie, Hawk, Lester, Bird and Dizzy, Ella and Sarah, Oscar and Ray Brown--none of them Blue Note artists or represented on Van Gelder recordings--then Blue Note must be considered no more than a single chapter, possibly a "footnote," in the story of jazz as an American art form, its significance extending far beyond any "hard bop" recording of "Song for My Father" or "The Sidewinder."]
If you're already an Oscar Peterson fan, pick up "Oscar Peterson in Berlin" ahead of this. That's an uninterrupted, well-recorded concert, with all of the emphasis on the phenomenal musician and the music itself. By contrast, "Music in the Key of Oscar" is more "produced" (arguably "over-produced"). It begins with a shot of someone listening to their car radio (a reference to Oscar's discovery in Canada by Jazz at the Philharmonic / Verve Records impresario Norman Granz). We then get some of those "he's the greatest," "he's unreal" testimonials from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, and then we go to a club for an extended work-out on "Caravan." Here's where the movie falters a bit. The backgrounds are not flattering to the musicians (drummer Jeff Hamilton in front of venetian blinds), the camera seems to have little interest in Oscar's fingers, instead giving us head shots of musicians who appear curiously unengaged, and with excessive emphasis on the close-up (practically anatomizing each of them, including Ray Brown and Herb Ellis).
Interviews follow, with the musicians giving testimonies to each other, Oscar especially intent on singling out his first, drummerless trio as "the greatest of all time." Then back to the music--a waltz.
By now, it's clear what the problem with the film is: the audio frequencies are fairly wide, permitting the listener to hear Brown's bass and Hamilton's drums along with Oscar's piano. But the sound is somewhat muffled and "dead," especially disappointing for a recording from circa 1990--and a musical documentary at that!
I only wish there was a video of Oscar at the chateau of Hans Brunner Schwer, where Oscar made some scintillating recordings in the 1960s, with Bobby Durham, the little man of steel, on drums. This documentary might be recommended for the classroom or for the Oscar fan who might be fascinated by some of the early photos of him dating back to the 1940s (and earlier)--the days when Oscar was an enfant terrible and Canadian hepcat. It also takes on the neglected subject of Oscar and race, allowing him to explain his feelings about the patronizing language used to describe him in the early days.
In terms of jazz and race, the film (and Oscar) gives Norman Granz the credit that he so richly deserves (even though I once saw Norman in person--in a rumpled suit, standing next to an inebriated Lester Young--I never had a true idea of his enormous importance to the dissemination of this great American music until many, many years later). It's almost criminal that the music's struggle to gain respect has led to the neglect of indispensable activists such as Granz or, for that matter, Leonard Feather. Oscar says in no uncertain terms that Norman Granz was one of jazz' true heroes, deserving more acclaim than practically anyone.
Other insights and highlights: Miles' and Bill Evans' groups never rehearsed; Ray Brown relates that Oscar rehearsed the trio all the time.
Oscar praising Chief Justice Earl Warren as a civil rights champion (besides, of course, Norman Granz). Dizzy's comments about the struggles of being black. Herb Ellis relating that he chose to stay in the black hotels with Oscar and Ray. Herb then admitting that booze had caused him to go AWOL with Oscar.
Highlights: In the recommended "Oscar in Berlin," it's the first encore taken at blazing speed; in this video it's the mounting tension of a slow blues in G and Oscar's playing the bass line while Ray becomes primary soloist. Norman Granz introducing Nat Cole as the first pianist at JATP in 1944 (I wish he'd mentioned Les Paul at the same time).
The 2nd part of the film focuses primarily on racial-social issues, including jazz and drugs--and, of course, booze.
This movie ultimately is an elegy and a eulogy. It catches a number of legends (if only the public knew as much) at the tail end of their careers and lives, reflecting on the glory that was. The juxtapositions of past and present are, admittedly, occasionally disturbing, reminding us of the passage of time and its disregard of those whose music defies its passage, yet at the same time the journey is wondrous: count yourself one of the lucky ones if you were around to catch any of these giants who once strode the earth, whether early or late.
Now if someone could only fix the audio before any more transfers of this disc are released (also it could profit from minor editing, though eventually the lengthy 2nd half brings the film full circle). My guess is that the distributors lacked the master film footage and were forced to copy a VHS tape onto DVD. Never a good idea, and never worth much than the most minimal charge (unless it's a rare disc--a Caruso recital, for example).
Last but not least, the film's biggest (but forgivable) "lie": Oscar is caught stating that getting old isn't that bad and that if the fingers get a bit stiff or arthritis sets in, he'll "walk away." Not long after the making of this film, Oscar suffered a partially disabling stroke.
He never walked away--at least not from the piano.