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The last time Robert Altman named one of his movies after the city in which it took place, he gave us 1975's sweeping satire Nashville, one of the defining films of its time. The country music capital and the crazy quilt of characters who gravitate to it provided Altman with a wide canvas upon which to boldly slap colors with the broadest of brush strokes, and in the process to create a vast panorama of quintessential Americana. Nashville pulled together a host of distinctly American hustlers, eccentrics, and lost souls, all drawn to that nearly mythical Tennessee town in search of their piece of the American dream -- whatever they perceived that to be. Altman touched a lot of nerves with Nashville, assailing the sorry state of U.S. politics, the hypocritical, mercenary music industry, and the cult of stardom and the insane lengths to which people will go in order to attain -- or maintain -- it.
So expectations run high for Altman's new film Kansas City, which, like Nashville, vividly re-creates a vital music scene -- in this case, the raucous jazz clubs of Depression-era Kansas City, where the likes of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Lester Young, and Count Basie jammed until the wee hours. Kansas City is Altman's hometown; the director was born there in 1925 and began frequenting the jazz hot spots while still in his early teens. You can feel Altman's love of the music in the ebullience of scenes such as the re-creation of the fabled cutting contest -- a sort of cross between a sporting event and a competitive jam session -- that evolved when a traveling Coleman Hawkins dropped in and took on Lester Young and Ben Webster, with a young Charlie Parker watching in awe from the balcony.
To capture the swinging Kansas City sound Altman recruited maverick record producer Hal Willner to help him assemble his own version of a contemporary jazz dream team consisting of nearly two dozen of today's top jazz musicians -- including Cyrus Chestnut, Don Byron, Ron Carter, Joshua Redman, and Christian McBride -- and assigned the current heavyweights the task of emulating their legendary predecessors. Where Nashville parodied the corniness of popular country music, Altman wears his reverence for jazz on his sleeve throughout Kansas City; the movie soars during its musical interludes.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't live up to either its musical underpinnings or the Nashville-size expectations. Altman riffs on racism, gangsterism, and the political thuggery that play a major part in our true national heritage, but he undercuts his own inspired solos with a slim central storyline that severely limits his scope. His cause isn't helped any by a disastrous miscalculation of how to direct the part of the film's leading lady, Blondie O'Hara, a bimbo whose good-for-nothing husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) has run afoul of a black nightclub owner and gambling kingpin who goes by the moniker Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). As played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Blondie is a cartoon in the middle of a serious drama, and the effect she has on the proceedings is as jarring on and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of Kansas City as a kazoo break would be in the middle of Duke Ellington's "Solitude."
Blondie is such an obviously one-dimensional aberration and Leigh is such a versatile and gifted actress that you have to figure Altman wanted Leigh to play her this way. That decision nearly derails the entire film. Blondie watches too many movies and idolizes tough-talking dames such as the femme fatale immortalized by Jean Harlow in Platinum Blonde and Bombshell. Leigh-as-Blondie tromps through the movie like a second-rate Harlow impersonator with no personality of her own, save her pathetic codependence on petty thief Johnny. You keep hoping the actress will imbue Blondie with some depth, or at the very least a sign of intelligence or self-awareness. But she doesn't, and Kansas City's central character becomes the film's biggest liability, a grating, paper-thin irritant.
Harry Belafonte, who began his career in the Forties singing jazz, has better luck with the role of Seldom, a man whose thoughtful verbosity (his full nickname is Seldom Seen, Often Heard) belies his reputation as a ruthless murderer. Belafonte looks completely at home in the milieu of Seldom's smoky gambling-joint-cum-jazz-showplace, the Hey Hey Club. The philosophical black racketeer kidnaps Johnny, and you could hardly blame Seldom for coming down hard on the white punk; Johnny not only robbed Seldom's best customer -- a high roller from out of town -- in broad daylight, he added insult to injury by committing the crime in blackface. Again, Altman makes a disappointing choice, wasting too much screen time on shots of Seldom trying to figure out what to do with Johnny and not enough on the gangster in action. Where does a guy like Seldom come from? What makes him tick? What are his connections to the white mob and the Kansas City political infrastructure? The mobster is the film's most compelling character, but the director opts to leave him an enigma.
Belafonte has a commanding screen presence; Seldom could have been one of Altman's most memorable and romantic creations, a sort of black version of Casablanca's Rick who would, through his actions, give the filmmaker a vehicle for expressing Altman's trenchant views on race relations and unholy alliances between politicians and mobsters. Instead Seldom paces and talks, paces and talks. He talks about Marcus Garvey and he talks about politics and he talks about hypocrisy, but the film shows us little of him actually doing anything. Seldom's long-winded monologues may be in character, but they impede the film's progress.
While Seldom mulls Johnny's fate for what seems like an eternity, Blondie leaps into action to save her man, kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the opium-addicted wife of Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), an ambitious behind-the-scenes political operator who has worked his way up to become an advisor to FDR. Blondie's plan: Use Carolyn as leverage to force Henry to apply pressure on Seldom and thereby secure Johnny's safe release. But Blondie has disregarded a lot of factors -- Carolyn's addiction, Henry's willingness to call in favors from gangsters, Seldom's cruelty -- that will make her eventual reunion with Johnny far different than she has envisioned.
In the absence of a fully realized leading character, the movie's most consistent and rewarding element becomes its hot improvisational jazz jams rooted in classic tunes by the likes of Count Basie and Bennie and Bernie Moten. Much of the action takes place within the confines of the Hey Hey Club, where a welcome pot of steaming jazz always brews. Kansas City's slight, linear narrative is uncharacteristic of Altman, who tends more toward the grandiose and the unfocused. But the rich backdrop of colorful supporting characters -- in this case an ensemble of gifted musicians, many of whom can act nearly as well as they play -- is an Altman trademark that asserts itself here. Kansas City is as distinct from Nashville as jazz is from country music; too bad arranger Altman couldn't have done something to eliminate Leigh's shrill note and heighten Belafonte's muted impact. Kansas City is to Robert Altman's illustrious oeuvre as The Cotton Club was to Francis Ford Coppola's -- a disappointment that shoulda, coulda, been so much more.
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