Review: Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes | SXSW 2023

Score: B

Directors: Samuel Pollard, Ben Shapiro

Running Time: 82 Minutes

Rated: NR

Unless you're deep into jazz or music history, it's likely you've never heard of Max Roach. The drummer was a true revolutionary, both on stage and out in the world. Though often overshadowed by more famous musicians and activists, he blazed his own trails, leaving behind an impressive legacy.

The Drum Also Waltzes, which play as part of PBS's American Masters series later this year, is a pretty standard documentary. Largely skipping over his early years, the film focuses on Roach's impressive time as a touring musician. Collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and especially Charlie Parker, he innovated the bebop style. After the death of some of his bandmates, he began progressing to more experimental beats, and taking a more active role in the civil rights movement. As one talking head explains, most jazz albums featured beautiful, abstract covers, hiding the racial identities of the performers. But Roach kicked off the 1960s with his defiant We Insist!, which featured his trio at lunch counter demanding service. As a cultural force and as piece of music, it's been considered an all-timer.

For those who are especially into music theory and experimental jams, there are great recordings of Roach's rehearsals with M'Boom, his all-percussion group. Questlove, one of our most famous drummers, helps us understand just how unusual and difficult a band like that would be. He also pays tribute to Roach by playing his own version of "The Drum Also Waltzes" in his practice space. And that's why this doc is worth seeing: the unbelievable performances. Whether Roach is playing for talk show hosts, clubgoers or children, there's a level of passion, skill and joy on display. Even in old age, he remained a student. One of his children recalls him saying about the drums: "I'm just now starting to master it." It's an admirable philosophy, though the film acknowledges that his devotion to music often got in the way of his role as a husband and a father.

The filmmaking on display here isn't groundbreaking, like Roach was. But it perfectly captures an unfortunately forgotten iconoclast of music and advocacy.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.