Meet the Filmmaker: Adam Kahan (The Case of the Three-Sided Dream)

To see Rahsaan Roland Kirk play music is a thing of wonder. For a man who was able to overcome blindness, disability, and the social injustice so ingrained in society at the time, his unique playing style and avant garde sound would become the finishing touches on a mythical figure that would prove to be a seminal artist in the landscape of jazz music. A man who quite literally followed his dreams to their fullest potential, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s legend comes to live in Adam Kahan’s new feature documentary, The Case of the Three-Sided Dream. We chatted with Adam about his fascinating new film, and the role of jazz music in today’s musical landscape.

The Case of the Three-Sided Dream screens for free this Saturday at Brookfield Place Waterfront Plaza.

RTF: This film uses animation, found-footage, and formal interviews. Can you speak about the decision to use a multi-media approach? Was it difficult to combine all of these elements?

AK: I wanted to make a film that really felt like Rahsaan, his music and message. He was an innovator who wasn’t shy about taking chances and fueling his message from unconventional places. So that meant bringing in elements from everywhere – whatever inspired me, whatever was available, whatever made sense. Not that it could be all over the map, so to speak. And it’s not. But just as Rahsaan used every type of physical object he could imagine to make music (horns, pipes, bells, whistles…), and every body part available (including his nose), I didn’t want to limit myself with what I could use.

The film of course started with classic talking head interviews cutting between archival footage. But then we hit some obstacles. One was that I had some great audio recordings of Rahsaan speaking, but no visual to go with them. That’s where the animation came in. In no way did I want to do the Ken Burns slow pan into a photo. For many reasons – too easy, boring, doesn’t necessarily convey anything. So then I tried other stuff, such as old-school experimental abstract film cutting (whatever that means!), and some of it was cool, but it didn’t match. It didn’t make sense. So I ultimately decided that I needed to engage another artist and that is where the animation came in. I tried a lot of guys, most of whom either got it wrong or wouldn’t work for the pittance I was offering, but I finally got connected with someone who nailed it – an artist/graphic designer named Mans Swanberg. He just got it. He got it all – understood Rahsaan, the film, where I was coming from. He did some style frames for me and everything was right, so we went ahead. I was able to pay him more than a pittance, though he didn’t exactly get rich off of the film. Of course that’s not why we do it (and he got that too!) One reviewer described the animation as Fat Albert meets Yellow Submarine, which I think is nice, and quite accurate.

I also wanted to make a very intimate film. You’ll notice there are no “experts” and that everyone in the film knew Rahsaan on a very deep level – only close friends, fellow musicians and family. Dorthaan Kirk (Rahsaan’s third wife) had a pile of Super 8 film that she graciously handed over to me and it was just amazing. I fell in love with it and used as much as I could. And this really cemented the intimate feeling of the film. We’ve got footage from their home – a party, a barbecue, on tour in Australia, visiting the zoo, birthday parties, hanging out with friends… and all of it means something in the narrative. It all makes sense. It’s not just that it looks cool, it all serves the story, which is largely about how this guy was such a mensch, changed people’s lives, and they LOVED him, they all loved him.

RTF: What inspired you about Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s story? Why did you choose to direct a documentary about him?

AK: So many things. Kirk was an obstacle killer. Nothing could stop him. And if he didn’t have enough obstacles to slay, he’d create some. I started as a fan. I stumbled on a record of his at a garage sale in San Francisco, didn’t know anything about him, and took a chance. It was love at first listen. But then I started reading liner notes about his life – made blind by a negligent nurse at the age of 2, professional musician by the time he was a teen, played three horns simultaneously after he had a vision about it in a dream, started a political movement, had a stroke and played half-paralyzed literally until the day he died. What a story! Sonically he is an earful. Visually he is an eyeful. I was talking with a good friend one day about him saying “someone should make a film on this guy” (I was making narrative shorts at the time). And then my friend was like – “You should!” There you have it.

RTF: The film itself feels dreamlike, as if it were one stream of consciousness. How did Kirk’s fascination with dreams inspire your filmmaking?

AK: Rahsaan was honest with himself and his actions were true to his feelings. All of those dreams that inspired him, for whatever reason, were real – real to him anyway. So he just followed what they said. Ultimately, I think they were himself, his subconscious. Though he would say it was God who came to him in dreams. I’m treading some treacherous philosophical grounds so I’ll leave it at that (was it God, or his own ego, does God exist..?), but suffice it to say that he followed his instinct and I just tried to do the same. All along – I did insist that this film has to feel true to Rahsaan, and that all of the people from his world, who knew him, who are in the film – they have to be on board and feel that the film is genuine, has integrity, and fits. I think it does and they are all behind it and agree. Rahsaan’s is a heavy legacy and I’m frankly humbled to be some small part of it in making this film.

RTF: How did you go about selecting the songs to highlight in the film? How do you think these songs inform the film’s narrative?

AK: Rahsaan was an educator. He drew on the long history of not just jazz, but all music. He was hip to everything from Bach to Hendrix, and by the way, Hendrix named him as one of his favorite musicians. So in the film, I wanted to include some Rahsaan compositions (Serenade to a Cuckoo, Blacknuss, The Inflated Tear) but I also wanted to include some compositions that influenced him (from Dixieland to Duke Ellington to Mingus). And he always wanted to see this music proliferated. It was never just about him – it was about the whole thing – all the greats who came before him and those who are carrying forward as well. I also wanted to showcase his diverse talents and repertoire. So you’ll see him playing three saxophones, and playing flute out of his nose, or maybe just one saxophone, or a penny whistle, or didgeridoo, or just playing a straight blues number… He did it all.

RTF: Kirk claimed jazz was synonymous with “classical black music”. Do you think that this idea has endured since his death? How do you think the perception of jazz has changed from the time Kirk began playing to the present-day?

AK: I know it sounds like a “party line” but Jazz really is one of our country’s greatest cultural contributions to the modern world. And it is a bitch to sell! First off – Rahsaan coined that term – Black Classical Music because he felt that it was a Black contribution and that it deserved as much recognition as [European] classical music. Jazz has had its ups and downs since Rahsaan left us in 1977. In his day, he certainly helped get the music more recognition (like his Ed Sullivan appearance that we see in the film). But I think jazz is still suffering in the world and a lot of people, just upon hearing the word, will immediately dismiss it. Even despite high-profile/big money initiatives like Jazz at Lincoln Center, I don’t think Jazz is in such a great place. I mean I hope JALC keeps it going but I can also tell you – trying to raise money for this film was not easy. And every “Jazz” outlet I went to said to me – “we’ve got our own money problems, we are looking for money for ourselves, we’ve got nothing for you!”

But then I don’t think Rahsaan wanted to limit himself to the term “Jazz” and we should not limit ourselves in that thinking, and jazz musicians should not, and certainly this is NOT a “Jazz” film. I think in order for what we know as Jazz to progress, we have to kill it. It’s like the race problems we have in this world. They are not going to disappear until we get rid of all the white people. And black people. And all the others. And everyone just screws each other until the color line is forever blurred. In a way, I think that is what Rahsaan envisioned for music. I’m certain of it in fact. A cross-pollination to the extreme.

RTF: How does it feel to be screening here at Rooftop? Are you excited to have Akua Dixon, who was featured in the film, perform before the screening?

AK: I love Rooftop hands-down. This is a filmmaker’s gig. They get my film, they get me, they get filmmakers and film on the whole. And it is important to have organizations like Rooftop around. They need to succeed. We need them as filmmakers, and as viewers. I think there is a constant cultural battle in this world to get meaningful content made and seen. It isn’t easy. So again back to Rahsaan – he was a sort of cultural warrior with music and certainly Rooftop is fighting the same fight – for film. And beyond that – the screenings are a blast!

It’s great to have Akua and her band perform. Working on this film over the years, I’ve definitely forged a bond with the people in it. There is a lot of love there and it is just fitting to have someone from Rahsaan’s world performing at this screening. For most of the screenings so far, we have had someone from the film with us. We had Dorthaan and Rory Kirk at the premiere at SXSW, and at multiple other screenings. And at our last screening we had the entire cast (except Rahn Burton who unfortunately passed away). Again, the film is quite intimate, and especially at the end, when we talk about Rahsaan’s death, it gets heavy. For me, I get teary eyed, but for all the people in the film, when they are in the audience, and watching that Super 8 footage that many of them are in – it can get quite emotional for them. And emotional is good. I know Rahsaan really wanted to engage with his audience and above all, he wanted people to feel. So do I.  And I think this film does that.