National Geographic’s ‘Jane’ Is A Perfect Marriage Of Wildlife Science And Music

I’ve seen countless shows at the Hollywood Bowl, but no matter who else the historic Los Angeles venue books, they may never top the strange trifecta of Jane Goodall, Montage Of Heck director Brett Morgen, and experimental musician Philip Glass, who graced the stage on a recent weekday evening to introduce a premiere of Morgen’s upcoming documentary on Goodall’s life, simply entitled, Jane.

Gooddall stood, flanked by the venue’s 80-piece in-house orchestra, waxing poetic about how Morgen asked the most incisive questions during their interview for the film that an hours-long appointment extended into days. Explaining that her story has been told so many times she’s almost sick of it, Jane’s feigned exasperation melted into admiration when she talked about the process of working with Morgen. Goodall’s openness with Morgen is as much a creative act as his ability to elicit that response, and their relationship seems to have morphed from journalist and subject to what only amounts to a creative partnership.

It’s a testament to Morgen’s integrity and prowess as a director focused on storytelling that he afforded an 83-year-old female scientist the same respect as a mythic rock figure like Kurt Cobain, and the two appeared to share a genuine affection and mutual respect as they introduced one of the initial screenings of the film. Widely heralded for his work in 2015 on Montage Of Heck, a new documentary on Kurt Cobain’s live carried out with the input of Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean, Morgen has established himself as the kind of filmmaker who sees his subjects as people, not artifacts, and subsequently is equipped to portray them with an empathy and grace that has expanded the limits of the modern documentary.

But Morgen’s impressive pivot to document this extraordinary woman’s life didn’t take him entirely out of the music space, as the involvement of experimental music iconoclast Glass — who personally wrote the score for the film, and directed it live solely for that screening — indicates. Jane Goodall is a household name, yes, but few people know how her own personal story intersects over and over again with her scientific work, and the element of music brought these two together in an emotional new way.

In order to capture those very personal elements of her story, National Geographic tapped Morgen to use over 100 hours of never-before-seen 16mm footage shot by Dutch wildlife filmmaker Hugo Van Lawick. The footage itself is a fascinating, personal artifact of Van Lawick and Goodall’s time together in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. Sent to photograph and document Jane’s work on film, Hugo fell in love with her in the process, and his footage, perhaps even unintentionally, depicts their budding romance. Morgen wove together these historical shots with more recent overdubs of Goodall’s insight into her life’s work, and, her own family life. Taken with Glass’ majestic soundtrack, the result is a gripping, personal tale of passion — and the story of a woman who put work above love, back when that was an even more difficult societal choice than it remains today.

In her work, Goodall made history as one of the first women in history to carry out the kind of scientific research on chimpanzees that she did, the close study of which led her to the discovery that the monkeys used tools in the same way that man does. Though that’s common knowledge in 2017 — we now know that plenty of mammals and other animals use tools — it was a revolutionary discovery at the time, and even disrupted man’s perception of his place in the world at the time. The fact that it was a woman who’d made this groundbreaking discovery certainly had something to do with it.

Initially, a relationship between Van Lawick and Goodall was easy; they were both based in Tanzania and both passionate about documenting the chimpanzee community. After a whirlwind romance, that included now-ancient artifacts like telegrams, the young couple got married and had a child together, a happy family even given an unlikely locale. But soon, Van Lawick’s funding was severed, and he moved on to the African Serengeti, eventually creating a life’s work there that has lived on in our collective cultural memory in a similar way to Goodall’s work. Each driven by the pursuit of their now splitting passions, the couple dissolved their romantic partnership but continued on as co-parents and scientists respectful of one another’s work.

In Morgen’s capable hands, or rather, through his eyes, the story of the family coming together and their dissolution, is mimicked and mirrored in the wildlife they study, and the parallels between the chimps and this human couple further cement our place, not above the animal ecosystem, but as part of it. But if there’s anything that romanticizes the story of Jane and Hugo, or Jane and her son Grub, more than the story of the chimpanzee mother Flo and her children, it’s the music.

The film’s score continually highlights the fierce independence of Jane Goodall, putting her own work above societal expectations, a marriage, and at times, even motherhood, flying in the face of human civilization’s expectations for a woman, and subsequently, changing the world. Otherworldly, dramatic, sad, and even sometimes humorous, Glass’ score brought to life all the elements of Jane by emphasizing one thing; in our own way, humans are the wildest animal of all.