I thought I had seen this before, and thought I hadn’t liked it too much, but since we are dutifully working our way through all the films of Robert Altman, great, good, and so-so, I resigned myself to seeing it again. And, oh my, was I wrong! I must have been thinking of some other film set in Kansas City, because this one is superb. It is 1936 and Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) sets out to rescue her idiot boyfriend from the consequences of his stupid action of robbing a black gangster (Harry Belafonte). She kidnaps the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a local politician and demands that he free her Johnny. That’s the plot, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it doesn’t end well.
That’s all fine, and well done, but that isn’t the real genius of this movie. What Altman did was gather some of the finest jazz musicians in America, dress them in period clothes, put them in a smoky set called the Hey-Hey Club, and tell them to start wailing, recreating the sound of 1930s Kansas City music, which was the roots of bebop. It was a permanent jam session in the club, with the musicians each trying to top each other, and they are all geniuses. And that becomes the sound track of the film. We see many shots, a good percentage of the film, of them playing, and then cut to the action, but the playing continues in the background. There is one battle between two tenor saxes that has to be heard to be believed, but all the music is great. I am not an authority on jazz, but even I have heard of Coleman Hawkins, played here by Craig Handy. Two others are Geri Allen as Mary Lou Williams and James Carter as Ben Webster.
The other attraction is the acting. Leigh is maybe a wee bit over the top with her fast-talking, hard-as-nails persona, but most of the time it works. Richardson (British, and you would never know it) is terrific as the laudanum-swilling, addled wife. But the real treasure is Belafonte. I had no idea he had such a performance in him. He just nails it as “Seldom Seen,” a guy whose real name nobody knows. He owns the Hey-Hey Club, which is also a gambling spot, and he is not somebody you want to cross. If you haven’t seen this one, you really should check it out.