One of the world's most respected jazz pianists, Herbie Hancock set out in 2005 to record with musicians outside his normal orbit. Feeling that stars are too easily pigeonholed by producers who want them to repeat their hits, Hancock set out to surprise himself and others by what they could create together. Possibilities, the resulting album, received two Grammy nominations. A cynic might regard the documentary Herbie Hancock: Possibilities as a glorified "making of" video, fleshed out with some archival footage and clips from recent concerts. But it's impossible to remain cynical about Hancock, a protean musician as well as an extremely intelligent individual who has dedicated himself to serving humanity.

Purists might be alarmed by some of Hancock's collaborators. Why Christina Aguilera, who didn't even bother to learn her song, and who is seen checking her makeup before a take? Or Raul Midón, trapped in a syrupy arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Loved You" in a studio thousands of miles away from Hancock? Wispy Irish folkies Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan tackle Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" with mixed results, while former Phish leader Trey Anastasio almost obliterates a vapid funk tune called "Gelo Na Montanha."

A half-hour into the feature, directors Doug Biro and Jon Fine cut to concert footage from European television of Hancock performing in the Miles Davis band in the mid-1960s, and viewers are suddenly reminded of the pianist's enormous skill and influence. Hancock's effortless virtuosity combined with his wide knowledge and intuitive restraint enabled him to make music that was demanding but still accessible. The film later touches on some of his earlier forays into pop, including the scratch-heavy "Rockit." But as Hancock points out, "Being a musician is something I do, not who I am," and the glimpses of the pianist practicing Buddhism or arguing politics are among the liveliest scenes in the film.

Hancock seems most comfortable with musicians closer to his own age. He works well with Annie Lennox on "Hush, Hush, Hush," even consulting songwriter Paula Cole to plumb the psychological undercurrents of her lyrics. And he's energized by working with Carlos Santana, who knows something about career-saving duets. With Santana, and later with Sting, Hancock gets to showcase deserving African musicians like singer Angelique Kidjo and guitarist Lionel Louke.
The film includes footage of Hancock performing in Japan with Wayne Shorter, "on the top of my list" of living musicians. Unfortunately, directors Biro and Fine tend to cut away from performances just as they're about to get interesting. They also shoot interviews in such tight close-ups that their subjects easily fall out of frame. As a DVD extra to an expanded version of Hancock's album, these drawbacks might not be so bothersome. But on screen, they occasionally give the film the aura of a vanity project. Hancock deserves a more thoughtful documentary, but for now his fans will welcome this look into his work.

-Daniel Eagan