by Mellissa Thomas
Does the name Rahsaan Roland Kirk ring a bell? If it does, you’re among a rare population of music lovers and historians. If you are among the millions that have never heard of him, consider yourself introduced. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream chronicles the enigmatic blind multi-instrumentalist’s life and his eccentric approach to jazz, or as he called it, “Black Classical Music.” As the Florida Film Festival synopsis of the documentary states, “That Kirk has somehow fallen through the cracks of musical history is a crime, but this doc makes a convincing case to fix that.”
The Case of the Three-Sided Dream
Directed and Written by: Adam Kahan
USA, 2014, 88 minutes
The film features live television interviews with Kirk in the sixties and seventies, including BBC Television and WNET New York, and stirring sound bites from his live performances paired with delightful animated images and text. The film also showcases archived footage from his childhood and stirring live performances, courtesy of his wife Dorthaan Kirk. His band mates, wife, best friend, and son take viewers on the emotional and oftentimes quirky journey through his life.
The film’s title stems directly from Kirk’s life and inspiration. He explained that he first got into professional music through dreams of himself playing multiple instruments at the same time, and he literally realized them to such expert degree he was pegged a gimmick. He graced every stage with his thick neck heavy from hanging saxophones and sometimes other wind instruments such as a recorder or flute; a nose flute or whistle, and sometimes a harmonica. He simultaneously played his five or six instruments to incredible effect, and his band mates supported him with finesse and impeccable improvisation.
His strong conviction about America’s racial issues and his personal experience as a blind man in society led him to become a revolutionary. He not only spoke out politically during his interviews, but during his performances as well. “If somebody’s with me, people will ask the person that’s with me about me, as if I’m not there,” Kirk said during his WNET interview about his blindness. “It’s [disrespectful] to me because I’m a man. I’m a man first, and a man who can’t see too well second.”
Kirk drew his musical inspiration from African music, old spirituals, R&B, Gospel, and Blues, and married elements of them all into his own work as a way of preserving those genres for the new generation to hear. He noticed that jazz, which he felt was America’s oldest genre of music, was hitting the back burner in place of pop, more modern R&B, and others. Few jazz artists could get booked for live television performances, and he changed that by forming the Jazz and People’s Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was well underway by then, and he took cues from strikes and sit-ins to devise his own form of protest.
He, his friends, and his band would attend live television nightly talk shows (the Dick Cavett Show was his first target), wait for a certain point in the show, and then suddenly strike by blowing whistles, forcing the show to go to commercial, and forcing talk show hosts to finally have the conversation about giving more jazz artists airtime.
Kirk’s fighting spirit and passion for music is the thread of the entire documentary, even through what should have been a traumatic medical emergency, all the way up to his death. His story is more than just a miraculously obscure chunk of music history, but an inspirational tale of perseverance and possibility for our generation.
Kirk, like many others with disabilities, lived with no boundaries on himself. He accomplished what he did because it never occurred to him that he could not. His life forces us to once again ask ourselves: What would I do if I had no limits?
Even without the compelling story, Kirk’s music featured in “Three-Sided Dream” is engrossing. This film gets 4.5 stars.