Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Diary #3: The Sound of Music

by Karen Jaehne

May 12, 1996

Sometimes the music in the movies is so good, the films are better if you just close your eyes and listen.

Stephen Frears' "The Van" is a quaint little number from Ireland, meant to make us love the beer-swilling soccer fans of Eyre. About a couple of guys who are about to become terminal losers, the film follows them as they entertain the idea of selling fast food from a van. Thus is born "Bimbo's Burgers." (Which reminds me of a vegetarian idea that would catch on here on the Croisette, only you'd just call it Bimbo's Buns).

Eric Clapton does the music for "The Van", which gives it a groove it otherwise wouldn't have. It's a great unplugged sound that gives the Irish rhythm. And relief from the blues.

Same thing happened in the ballyhooed "Kansas City," the latest from Robert Altman. The shortcut through this flick (laugh track, please) is again the fabulous soundtrack. Fortunately, Altman knows that, so there are times when he simply stops the story and lets the jazz joints of Prohibition Era Kansas City do their stuff. There's Joshua Redman and this extraordinary collection of jazz artists. There's even a scene with two saxophonists cutting each other. Given how good all that is and how simple the story is, the actors have to take a back-seat every once in a while.

Ever the diplomatic director, Altman informed the press conference that he had conceived of the film as a jazz riff on his home town, Kansas City. He even spoke of stars Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson and Brook Smith as a jazz trio. Of course, some numskull European critic got up and asked which one was the bass, the keyboard, etc., or did Monsieur Altman have some other group of instruments in mind?

Altman dodged that one and went on to say that the first music he'd ever listened to seriously was Duke Ellington's "Solitude," which his black nanny had made him sit down and hear at the age of about eight. She called the best music ever written, and Altman has tried to make the film worthy of that inspiration.

Musically, he has done it. The actors could have been better tuned, especially the twitchy Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her performance is so neurotic, she resembles Amanda Plummer more than a gangster's moll who dreams of being Harlow.

Steve Buscemi's "Trees Lounge" is another film that's better with your eyes closed. Its soundtrack is vintage jukebox in a forgotten Long Island watering hole. Bluesy and drunken songs from women in need, a little R & B to pace the action scenes, and voila! The movie's got a swing to it. Otherwise, it's full of the kind of characters Buscemi always plays - lowlifes who don't drink as systematically as they'd like to. These folks will never make it to a classy place like Vegas. Their livers will rot in Hoboken. "Trees Lounge" does prove that Buscemi has a vision of the whole world being exactly like him. You may not share that vision, but his taste in music is a bit better, so he's not lost.

And before we leave the subject of movie music, I'd like to put out a call on behalf of Robert Altman. (He did not ask me to do this, nor does he know, but I think it's a good idea.) He announced at the press conference that he had several hours of really good footage of his jazz musicians playing together - rehearsing, doing various takes for the scenes, trying stuff out, simply jamming - and he'd like to cut it together as a half hour music movie. Now, journalists are notoriously impoverished, so that fell on deaf ears, but I think there may be some jazzophile out there who sees a good deal in this.

Altman needs $20,000 to cut together his jazz pick, and film companies want to put lawyers on it and before you know it, the lawyers have each made $20,000 but there's no bread for the jazz. Any jazz patrons out there? Let us know.

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