Younger generations will undoubtedly associate the music of celebrated American jazz performer Nat King Cole with the annual, high-end department store Christmas adverts it usually crops up in. There’s much more to the man and his music than turkey and mistletoe, however, and aside from being a colossal talent, Cole was a true trailblazer in popular jazz, confronting the prejudice faced by African-Americans in that era (against the tumultuous backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement’s early days) and helping to alleviate racial tensions through his work. Thankfully, this isn’t glossed over in Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark (2014), an elegant look at one of the 20th century’s most incredible artist.
Director Jon Brewer has gathered together a diverse array of contributors from Cole’s life, and aside from his large family (a big portion of the film features Cole’s loving wife Maria, who sadly passed away following production) there’s some affectionate memories from surviving contemporaries such as Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. Even our own Bruce Forsyth (nice to see him) is on-hand to chat about his hero, and his admiration for Cole (whom he worked with at the London Palladium) is both sincere and deeply touching. As biographies go, Brewer’s film is a fairly standard portrait, but what really enhances things is the wonderful catalogue of Cole’s songs throughout (you can’t help but be taken aback by his warm and appealing soft baritone voice) and the wider, sociological examination of Nat’s early music career.
As Cole rose to fame earning thousands from an early Vegas stint, he was still required to stay in a nearby far-from-luxurious segregated neighbourhood. He and his family were also subject to suffering and harassment when they moved into an upmarket, predominantly white, suburb of Los Angeles later on – their dog being poisoned and racial epithets scrawled across the lawn just two horrible instances of middle-class bigotry. While Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark will largely appeal to jazz aficionados and Cole acolytes, it’s that glimpse at the other side of his career (the film’s title is a term Cole coined after his exasperation towards TV network executives who were mishandling his fifities variety show) which adds another interesting and thoughtful layer to this fittingly reverential documentary.