On a frigid and snowy night in 1972 famed jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot while on stage. The shooter was none other than his common-law wife, Helen More, who was by all accounts his biggest supporter. Kasper Collin’s documentary I Called Him Morgan looks back on the couple’s relationship and attempts to piece together the events leading up to that fateful night.
Discovered by Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan quickly rose up the musical ranks. His cocky swagger was backed up by his undeniable talent with the trumpet. Like many musicians of that era, Lee could not escape the dangerous lure of drugs and women, the latter of which would ultimately play a key role in his death.
Using an audio cassette recording of an interview that Helen gave in 1996, a month prior to her death, archival footage, and interviews with musicians and friends, Collin provides a solid overview of the couple’s relationship. His film presents a union that was filled with equal measures of love and volatility. Despite pulling the trigger, I Called Him Morgan does not portray Helen in a villainous light. In fact, it is rather sympathetic to her plight. Collin paints her as a woman who had overcome plenty of adversity early in her life and became a lifeline for Morgan in his darkest hours.
Collin clearly has affection for the principle subjects in I Called Him Morgan and tries his best to recreate the jazzy haze of the era they lived in. Unfortunately, this love letter to the troubled couple lacks passion. While the storytelling hits many of the key points, there is little in it that separates I Called Him Morgan from other films that focus on musicians who sadly met their demise. Furthermore, since Collin has to rely heavily on Helen’s recording, the film never shakes the feeling that she is being cautious in her word choices as to not implicate herself any more than she need to. This is not to say that her remorse is not real, it clearly is, but its careful construction raises more questions than answers.
In the end I Called Him Morgan leaves a void within the viewer. Though the jazzy score occasionally makes our toes tap, the film’s rhythm fails to excite our souls.