Since the success of biographical musician films like Ray (Ray Charles) and Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), I’ve been longing to see on film the fascinating lives of jazz musicians like Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and others, only to be disappointed. So, (as the song goes) until the real thing comes along, I’m going to be watching and re-watching some of the jazz films that have already been made. I hope to continue this online series of reviews, hoping to spark the interest of, at least, movie goers to the wealth of fascinating jazz lives that have made great films.
Kansas City (dir. by Robert Altman, 1996)
Robert Altman’s Kansas City, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as a young woman who kidnaps the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a Kansas City political bigwig with the hopes of getting help to free her small-time hood husband (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of K.C.’s biggest crook, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). The treat for jazz fans comes in the soundtrack, recorded “live at the Hey Hey Club” with some of today’s brightest stars playing the loose, swinging jazz of the 30’s.
This was a time, during the Great Depression, when Kansas City was the center of the jazz world. As the hub for dozens of Territory Bands who’d travel through the hinterlands playing the hits of the day, the greatest musicians of the swing era spent a good deal of time in Kansas City. Charlie Parker himself grew up in Kansas City around this time and a young actor plays a bit part as a young “Yardbird” hanging out at the club and silently marveling at his heroes, alto sax slung around his neck.
But it’s the jazz pros providing the soundtrack that got my attention in the first place. Though they weren’t given any lines, the professional musicians at the Hey Hey Club stole every scene they had. There’s David “Fathead” Newman taking a rare turn on alto sax, Geri Allen showing her boogie woogie piano chops, joyous trumpet work from Nicholas Payton & Olu Dara, and Kevin Mahogany sings a bit of blues from behind the bar (as a female patron lounges beside the pints and highballs). Early in their careers, the cool guitar work featured both Mark Whitfield and Russell Malone, and I spotted Lewis Nash and bass giants Ron Carter and Christian McBride almost fading into the background at the back of the bandstand.
A few of the musicians played the parts of real-life legends, though again without any lines. A very young James Carter nails his short solos in the role of the great tenor Ben Webster, and the musical highlight is the tenor sax battle between Joshua Redman (as Lester Young) and Craig Handy (as Coleman Hawkins). As their fellow musicians do, they play energetically in the swing style of the day, but they don’t strictly imitate the giants they portray. Director Altman says he told the band to feel the looseness and energy of this exciting time when the great soloists began to break out of the collaborative sound of the big bands.
Sadly, excepting the two minutes of tenor battle, the music segments are rather short. As a jazz nerd, I still found it fascinating to see the big names of today playing in the context of the legends that came before them.
The film itself is called by Altman one of his personal favorites, and the DVD commentary track features some interesting insights into the director’s childhood in 1930’s Kansas City. However, I found the story too thin to support the hard work of a talented cast. Harry Belafonte’s Seldom Seen monologues are an interesting insight into race relations of the time, but the message gets through in half the time taken. The sets are impressive, Altman spent much of the budget refurbishing a section of his beloved Kansas City train station, the acting is sharp, particularly the drug-addled politician’s wife played by Miranda Richardson, but my heart belonged to the live jazz scenes.
Altman famously recorded the band live while they filmed and the sound track is well worth picking up, with much more detailed info on the technical difficulties of recording the music while making the film. I’ll give this movie 3 stars out of 5, an extra star if you’re a big fan of the director, but I prefer his films The Player and Gosford Park. Jazz geeks like me will thrill to the music and a look at today’s big jazz stars just cutting their teeth.
Click Here to listen to Yeah Man! from the Kansas City original motion picture soundtrack.
UPDATE: listener Kandie (in comments) also recommends Altman’s “Jazz ’34” Rememberances of Kansas City Swing from Rhapsody Films (including complete versions of the jazz snippets in the film) and 3 related CDs: Kansas City: Orig. Motion Picture Soundtrack (noted in the above review), Kansas City Band: More Music from Robert Altman’s Kansas City, and The Real Kansas City of the 20’s 30’s and 40’s. thanks, Kandie!!