Sydney Film Festival Review: Keep On Keepin’ On (USA, 2014)


Documentary Keep On Keepin’ On is rather naive in the way it was made. Director Alan Hicks and his cinematographer Adam Hart had never really worked on any similar projects before, so they just kept on shooting until they could piece together a film. It took five years for them to make Keep On Keepin’ On, and the sole reason it works so extraordinarily well is primary subject of the film, Clark Terry.

Terry is without category in the realm of jazz, a highly respected and infinitely loved artist who has this insatiable need to support the music that has given him life since the 1940’s. This incredibly warm and instantly lovable man is the first voice you hear when the film drops into one of his home-schooling teaching sessions, while he is mentoring a young blind pianist by the name of Justin Kauflin. Vocalising a melody for Justin to follow, cutting through his baited breathe, Terry constantly pushes his ailing health to the side in order to help Kauflin grow as an artist. The perseverance of this man – who is currently still teaching jazz at the age of 93 – is inspiring to watch, drawing you into the documentary and immediately coaxing you into investing heavily in Clark Terry.

You can forget that the long-list of jazz legends like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones came up under Terry’s guidance, or that he has the most distinctive sound of any jazz trumpeter in music history, what’s really important is the unconditional love Clark Terry communicates to his students, and the way he helps people ‘find their own sound.’

Keep On Keepin’ On documents the relationship between Clark and Justin, fleshing each of them out with very well illustrated backstories during the film’s first half, showing how they came together and helped each other in their own ways. Justin was blind from a very young age whereas Clark was only starting to lose his sight when they first him. The moment you find out Justin had a calming effect on Clark during the gradual process of him losing his vision, is the moment the film really begins to warm the soul. Watching them give so much to each other and always keep each other strong gives the film that rare, genuinely positive air about it that seems lost in the current trend of edgy, confrontational documentaries.

With the film having a really organic feeling to it, we catch up with legendary figures like Herbie Hancock, Bill Cosby, and Quincy Jones, and not because it was planned to have them in the documentary, simply because the life of Clark Terry acts as a magnet for all these icons who pop in and out of the film to express their gratitude and share what inspires them most about Clark Terry.

A bit of narrative naturally occurs with Justin’s progressing career and Clark Terry’s consistent strength in the face of constant health problems, both very human paths which you cannot help but become deeply attached too. By the time the film is over, you have nothing left to do but watch it again just to spend more time with these people. It’s a documentary which goes to show that the subject matters much, much more than how it is made.


Running Time 84 minutes

Keep On Keepin’ On screened as part of the 61st Sydney Film Festival


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.