For instance, we only briefly hear about “Hymn to Freedom,” one of Peterson’s early major original compositions that, after Harriette Hamilton added lyrics, became an anthem of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s. However, the film’s brief synopsis of this fails to provide enough context to take away much from this particular chapter of Peterson’s life. It never really even addresses at what stage Peterson made the step from being a performer to composing original works—how that came about, how he felt about it, how audiences felt about it. Anything that would help paint a clearer picture.
“Oscar Peterson: Black + White” starts off as an adoring if straightforward celebration of Peterson’s music and legacy and would have been much better off remaining in its comfort zone. Bu the movie later attempts to shift gears into something far more personal and searching, and it consistently fails to provide enough context about Peterson’s marriages and family business for most of its revelations to mean all that much. In trying to pivot to something a bit deeper and more intimate, more Peterson the man than Peterson the legend, the documentary’s last half hour instead turns into something far more muddled and ineffective.
Avrich’s film also fails to make consistent key choices about what kind of audience it’s targeting, sometimes offering rather broad commentary in one hand, but then with the other hand throwing out a lot of names and dates in passing that would mean a lot to a jazz aficionado, but are rather opaque to the uninitiated. Sometimes the film feels very geared towards existing fans, other times seeking to introduce newcomers to Peterson’s legacy, and through this inconsistency fails to feel truly suited to audiences on either end of the spectrum.
There’s enough here in the sheer wealth of material that fans of Peterson’s or jazz could find this documentary worth the runtime. But it’s unfortunate that Avrich and his team were not able to shape this material into an overall stronger narrative.
Now playing on Hulu.