‘Keep on Keepin’ On’ is inspirational triumph

Tom Long
The Detroit News

A celebration of music, perseverance and human connection, “Keep on Keepin’ On” is for both jazz lovers and lovers of life.

The film follows jazz trumpet legend Clark Terry as he approaches his 90s. Having established himself with the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, Terry turns later in life to teaching young jazz students — doesn’t matter the instrument — how to approach their music and lives. Even at this late age, Terry is still tutoring and encouraging one particular student.

That would be pianist Justin Kauflin, blind since his teens. As the film begins, Kauflin is struggling to make it in New York City but is still making trips to Terry’s Arkansas home, where he jams with his mentor and they stay up talking until the wee hours.

Over the course of three years, Kauflin will go broke in New York and be forced to move back in with his parents in Virginia. And while he has his ups and downs, Terry is losing a decades-long battle with diabetes — his sight is fading, and he’s being brought down by wounds in his feet that won’t heal.

But still the two get together, Justin sitting at an electric piano by Terry’s bedside, banging out melodies that Terry sings to him. Justin makes it to the semifinals of a national competition; Terry sends him a lucky pair of socks. Terry undergoes treatments in an oxygen chamber; Justin sits outside it with his guide dog, speaking through an intercom.

A story about any 90-year-old man bonding with a guy in his mid-20s would likely be affecting, but director Alan Hicks, himself a former student of Terry’s, commits to making each individual impressive in his own right. Terry’s long history is displayed through classic clips and photos and interviews with other jazz greats, including his first student, Quincy Jones.

Justin, meanwhile, is shown to be both an incredible talent and a survivor. He negotiates the streets of New York with his guide dog, skips easily down stairs and navigates life with a smile; his parents say he wasn’t even that upset when he went blind. He simply found the piano, which he practices, practices, practices.

Justin is, however, plagued by doubts about his own emerging style and a certain amount of stage fright. But even in Terry’s darkest hour, he prods his student along.

The film’s ending seems a bit orchestrated — Hicks was likely aware of events about to unfold — though totally earned. “Keep On Keepin’ On,” one of Terry’s many old-school expressions, is the kind of film that leaves you hopeful and happy and believing that there’s good in this world. The music’s not bad, either.


‘Keep on Keepin’ On’


Rated R for some language

Running time: 84 minutes