Matthew Buzzell's film brings the music of Jimmy Scott back to life.

Soul Man 

Matthew Buzzell's film brings the music of Jimmy Scott back to life.

In the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee tradition of sampling intriguing documentaries about lovable eccentrics comes Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew. Directed by first-timer Matthew Buzzell, the film spotlights the odd, heartbreaking, yet ultimately victorious career of jazz singer Jimmy Scott, who turned 78 last month. In 77 minutes, Buzzell's film succeeds in chronicling the arc of a man's life.

Scott was born in Cleveland in 1925. "Memories have a great place in my life, the good times and the bad times," he says. Scott and his several siblings missed their mostly absentee father; it was a childhood fraught with ills that would have crumpled less-hearty souls. The family moved frequently because of their seesawing finances, and Scott was often teased about his slight frame. When he was twelve, doctors discovered that he had Kallman's syndrome, a disorder that kept him from ever reaching puberty -- which brought the obvious reproductive challenges.

But it was only his body that stopped growing. Scott found solace in song, and his high voice set him apart. Some found him pleasingly quirky -- he had peculiar timing and phrasing -- but others saw him as a carnival sideshow candidate. The heterosexual Scott was frequently perceived to be otherwise. One of his musician friends recalls people's suspicion that he was "a woman in a man's suit." A jazz historian calls him "a sexual oddity."

He compensated with machismo, carrying a gun, drinking and cavorting with prostitutes. He married four times. Yet his talent kept people on his side -- at least to his face.

When a recording of "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" became a hit in 1950, Scott was crushed to find out that the record label referred only to the Lionel Hampton Orchestra -- "with vocals." Over the next decade, a couple of critically acclaimed albums came and went for various reasons, and Scott left New York and went back to Ohio. Twenty years went by with hardly a gig until random events -- including a death -- propelled him back in front of audiences and onto turntables the world over. In a scene that punctuates other countries' sophisticated adoption of jazz, a group of Japanese young people practically kiss Scott's ring, humbling themselves before their version of a rock star.

Buzzell's film looks like a traditional documentary, with close-ups of people talking about Scott and the requisite visit to his childhood home. Buzzell deviates from the form, though, by following the artist's commentary on his life with concert footage. Early in the film, Scott says that words and melodies are not important if he's not telling a story -- and Buzzell helps by allowing Scott to recount the tragic details of his mother's premature death, perfectly dramatized by Scott's rendition of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Similarly, a description of the family's poverty is followed by "Pennies From Heaven." The technique is deceptively simple -- and it plays like a thoughtful concerto.

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