Oscar Peterson Review: Black + White: Never Mind the Talking Heads

At one point in “Oscar Peterson: Black + White,” Barry Avrich’s documentary about the Canadian jazz pianist, Billy Joel raves about the speed of Peterson’s hands on the piano. “You would try to watch what he was doing,” he explained, “but it’s a blur.”

True, but completely redundant: we are already watch Peterson’s hands flash over the keys, in the crisp archival concert footage Joel is talking about. Breathless praise adds nothing; in fact, it detracts from the pleasure of seeing a great jazz perform. Like a recent viral tweet skewering this music-doc convention sarcastically pointed out, we don’t need a bunch of expert interviews “to put the band in its historical context”. Seeing Peterson play is more than enough.

“Black + White” features a lot of music by Peterson, including several covers of covers made in homage to the film by a contemporary ensemble. But on almost every occasion, Avrich undermines those numbers by cutting to one of an endless list of talking heads, usually to repeat predictable platitudes about Peterson’s brilliance. The images of Peterson at work testify infinitely better to this brilliance than the words of admiration of the artists he influenced. In addition, the relevance of the interviewees varies enormously. Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock are understandable. But if, like me, you’re wondering why we hear so much about Randy Lennox, a fairly nondescript corporate media executive, stick to the credits: he’s one of the film’s producers. If you don’t already believe that Oscar Peterson was a genius, I doubt he’s the one to convince you.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White
Unclassified. Duration: 1h21. Watch on Hulu.

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