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Netflix’s Quincy Makes One of Music’s Most Fascinating Figures Just Another Inoffensive Documentary Subject

Two of the best interviews of recent memory were with Quincy Jones, published in GQ and Vulture, respectively, early this year. The sprawling, outrageous discussions with the chameleonic composer, arranger, and producer covered everything: from Prince and Michael Jackson’s odd rapport, to Leni Riefenstahl’s account of how much coke the Nazi leadership did, to an alleged tryst between Richard Pryor and Marlon Brando, to dating Ivanka Trump. Celebrity Q&As that are this open and colorful are rare these days. Most stars (and definitely their handlers) are conscious of the potential for social media blowback and prolific news aggregation if they let something untoward slip out in an on-the-record discussion. But at age 84, Jones seemed unbothered by such concerns. The interviews suggested he was a fountain waiting to be turned on, and provided a reminder of what good entertainment journalism can be: surprising, genuinely informative, and fun.

After the interview, Jones’s six daughters allegedly staged a family “intervention” and requested that their father apologize for his comments, which also included a claim that he currently has 22 girlfriends, none much older than the daughters themselves, and derogatory remarks about “fat and old” women his own age. (84, at the time of the interview.) Jones issued a public mea culpa, and according to another unusually revealing GQ interview with Paul McCartney, also called the former Beatle to apologize for deeming him and the rest of his old bandmates “no-playing motherfuckers,” and Paul himself the “worst bass player [he] ever heard.” “I’m so grateful to my daughters because they ain’t scared to stand up to their daddy,” Jones wrote in his apology, posted to social media. “I am an imperfect human & I’m not afraid to say it. And I’m sorry & I’m not afraid to say it.” It’s a far cry from the motto he articulated in the GQ interview: Je ne regrette rien de tout. I don’t regret shit.”

It’s no surprise, then, that a new Netflix documentary about Jones directed by his most famous offspring, the actress Rashida, offers a gentler and altogether more by-the-numbers picture of his career, exploits, and demeanor. To be fair, Jones’s actual achievements were perhaps under-addressed in the print interviews. Spanning six decades, they include breathing new creative life into Frank Sinatra and Count Basie’s careers in the 1960s, making Michael Jackson a solo star with Off the Wall and Thriller, and becoming one of the first major black composers of film scores—more than enough fodder for the two-hour documentary treatment. The film features plenty of charming and intimate footage: Jones puttering around his home Cribs-style, showing museum-worthy music history artifacts to Dr. Dre (“There’s so much history here, man”), or chopping it up with several other of his wildly famous friends. It’s possible that without his daughter behind the camera, Jones wouldn’t be so willing to share these small moments. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine another director getting such raw and unmediated footage of Jones in a hospital bed, recovering from two separate incidents that threatened his life within the past four years.

Still, Quincy feels PR-adjacent. It adheres to a formal mold that is now standard issue for life-spanning documentaries about famous people. Its extensive archival footage hits all the familiar bullet points: Career highs and lows are marked by conventional changes in pace, tone, and soundtrack. Rashida Jones’s role as filmmaker-character in Quincy is dramatically inert; she is neither on- or off-camera enough. If there’s a celebrity story worth telling in all its weird and gritty detail, it’s Quincy Jones’s. But the familial connection in Quincy seems to ordain a less interesting narrative. Elements like Jones’ troubled relationship with his schizophrenic mother, struggles against industry racism, and descent into dissolute behavior at various points in his life could be explored further.

Quincy’s final line is Jones’ response to an interviewer in the early 1990s asking him if there was anything he felt like he had failed at in his life: “Marriage.” He shrugs it off with a chuckle, and the film leaves his three divorces and two breakups with serious girlfriends as abstract as possible. (All five relationships yielded children.) Quincy mostly chalks these up to unspecified workaholic behavior, rather than the orgiastic hedonism Jones reminisces about in the recent interviews. It’s admittedly charming to watch the octogenarian Jones calling 75% of the people he walks past in a room “baby,” but one wonders about the upshot of this flirtatiousness for his younger years. He is a fascinating subject precisely because his wisdom, talent, curiosity, and foresight always existed alongside his eccentricities, vices, and imperfections. The latter aspects are conspicuously absent from Quincy, and sometimes that absence makes the film’s actual narrative—the trajectory connecting major events in his life—difficult to follow.  

In the streaming era, the volume of biopics and documentaries about famous entertainers living and dead is at an all time high. From Straight Outta Compton to Gaga: Five Foot Two to Long Strange Trip, the lion’s share of them have family, friends, or even their own subjects involved behind-the-scenes. We shouldn’t underestimate the way the closeness of filmmaker and subject contributes to a prevailing feeling of uniformity in these sorts of films, in terms of both style and stakes. (The largely excellent Oasis doc Supersonic, driven in part by the Gallagher brothers, is a rare example that manages to clear the bar.) Even Jones, one of the most vibrant living characters in popular music, can’t transcend these restrictions in Quincy. “I’m too old to be full of it,” Jones claims to two young musicians at one point in the film. Unfortunately, the people filming him want him to be, at least a bit.