“Jane,” the latest documentary from director Brett Morgen (“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”), is nothing short of a small miracle. First, there’s the fact that the film is the product of a hundred hours of prime footage once thought to be lost before being discovered in 2014. Second, the subject of the footage, the conservation biologist and chimp researcher Jane Goodall, whom everyone knows but no one knows really anything about, is a mesmerizing figure with a story long-worthy of telling.
But let’s start with the logistics. In her mid-20s, Goodall, fascinated by nature but not tinged by academic orthodoxy, was directed by her employer to travel to Africa to conduct observational research on primates. She went to the Gombe in 1960, which sits at the western edge of Tanzania (it has since become a national park). Accompanied by her mother, Goodall began a study of the chimpanzees in the park, at first keeping her distance but then over time moving closer and closer.
The footage, captured mostly by Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch photographer for National Geographic who himself becomes a character in Goodall’s life, is stunning. There’s a reason van Lawick got his coveted job, and the film is at its best when it lets the footage speak for itself. Extreme close-ups on the insects creeping and crawling among the grass, dusk shots of Goodall sitting against the darkening sky, chimps slipping somewhat lackadaisically through towering trees. Not to mention the color, which is rich as the finest works of Fauvism. When the color fades into gruesomely edited black-and-white sequences, which are thankfully rare in the film’s brisk 90-minute running time, “Jane” loses most of its luster.
That’s not to say that the film offers nothing by way of the traditional biographical documentary. The 83-year-old Goodall’s eloquent narration, constructed partly from interviews with Morgen and partly from her own writing, allows us to exist inside her wonder-filled young mind. Morgen’s interview questions verge on unimaginative, but Goodall’s responses are ever-enlightening peeks into one of the 20th century’s most revered figures. Overlaying Goodall’s writings, read aloud by the woman herself, over actual footage of her young self is magical. A freak accident of discovery and timing, sure, but it’s a treasure nonetheless.
The score by famed composer Philip Glass (“Visitors”) is gorgeous, if overpowering at times. Often, it can tie in a sense of tragedy where it does not seem to exist, a complaint I’ve had about numerous Glass scores, but here, it’s a minor quibble. The score contains at its core a sense of wondrous fascination and discovery, or perhaps nearing it. It’s elegant and though I wonder what the film would be like with zero score, with scored only by the sounds of nature, my hunch is that van Lawick’s cameras were not designed to capture noise. Glass is a nice consolation.
Far from conventional, “Jane” transmutes a simple biographical tale into a fully immersive and sensory experience. In fact, the film’s allegiance to completing her biography can come at the expense of experiencing Jane’s life. Those moments of truth — not biography but documentary at its core — are so fundamentally moving that to turn away from the chimps crawling around each other, or Goodall raising her son Grub in Gombe, or Goodall laughing with van Lawick, just feels wrong. Fortunately, Morgen chooses to stick with the footage much of the time. Lucky us.