Director: Robert Altman
Rating: A film you'll remember
Kansas City: a film in syncopated time. That's my subtitle, not Robert Altman's - but I don't think he would object.
Like the first time I heard John Coltrane's music, or like the first few minutes of a Shakespeare play, I was a bit disoriented in the early scenes of Kansas City. Director Altman has said that the style of this film is jazz. In its making, he used the overlaid devices of improvisation and structure that characterize jazz. And he succeeded admirably.
It feels like this is a film that Altman has wanted to make for a very long time. Indeed, he had written the kernel of its script several years ago, intended for a somewhat different project - but that's not what I'm talking about. Altman grew up in the Kansas City of the thirties, and this seems to be a movie about his own soul. It has the fabric of childhood nostalgia interwoven with the darkness of evils we only realize in the retrospective examination of adulthood.
Once I got the hang of the unusual time phrasing in the film, I settled down and just enjoyed it. It was comfortable and easy.
I don't mean to imply that Kansas City is a saccharine trip down memory lane. It's anything but. One of its subtexts is the story of underworld gangs, both black and white, with all the violence and treachery that accompanied them. Kansas City in the thirties was the fiefdom of Tom Pendergast, boss of the Democratic political machine. That machine was every bit as powerful and crooked as the better known political works of Chicago and New York. It wasn't pretty. But Altman experienced all that through the filter of childhood and adolescence. That's how he shows it to us.
Don't get caught up in a search for the "true-life" story in this picture. It's all fiction. Many of the characters are based on real folks, though, and it lends powerful authenticity to the plot. Some of that connection to historical figures is subtle. It's easy to miss that the young man who befriends a girl lost at Kansas City's union depot, then takes her to a jazz club for the night, is the young Charlie Parker. Parker's Aunt is also genuine. And the cutting contest jam session you'll witness represents a real meeting of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster.
But, the only character based on any of these jazz giants is that of the young Parker. For the others, a cadre of terrific contemporary jazz musicians just jam. They don't act the roles of their not-quite-characters. Rather they play their own music, with reference to, and reverence for, the styles and material of Hawkins, Young, et al. It works. As I flowed with one of the jam sessions, I thought I heard Ben Webster, and didn't know until I read the publicity material later, that Webster was represented.
And a lot of other things work in this movie, too. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance as Blondie O'Hara seems at first to be over the top, more of a caricature than a characterization. Then we realize that the Blondie character is acting, trying to emulate Jean Harlowe - and it all makes sense. Only Blondie's intensity, and the gun she carelessly waves around, keep the other characters from laughing out loud at her.
Harry Belafonte is more than an actor here. He and Altman are personally close, and Belafonte has been a collaborator in all regards. He wrote - or improvised - much of his material, and created the gangster named Seldom Seen from his own background, as much as from Altman's concept or from the historical Seldom Seen.
All the performances are strong. Altman gave his cast the freedom of jazz artists, and they used it well. Miranda Richardson as Carolyn Stilton, and Dermot Mulroney as Johnny O'Hara are particularly noteworthy.
The energy of the film is intense, but cohesive, like that of the jam sessions themselves. This is Robert Altman at his best. Kansas City is a unique expression of film art. It's a good story, with intriguing characters. And it's a jam session like none you'll find in any club in the world today.
© 1996, J. C. Adamson