Film Scouts Reviews

"Kansas City"

by Karen Jaehne

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May 15, 1996

"Kansas City" is the musical Robert Altman ("Nashville," "Shortcuts," "Pret-a-porte") made about his home town and a certain memory he had of an incident that he's very slightly fictionalized. The key to understanding this movie is to start with the music, then watch the way the story and the acting correspond to things that jazz musicians do. "Kansas City" is not about plot in the sense of a narrative-driven movie. It weaves together love, death, dim-witted gangsters and crooked political machinery.

At its best, "Kansas City" is an opportunity to hear some good jazz musicians - Joshua Redman, Christ McBride, Mark Whitfield, and Craig Handy, who came out of Mingus' group, plays Coleman Hawkins. The jazz musicians mostly come from groups who never play together, so this is rare, As Altman said at the press conference, "Music is a reason not to die." It sure beats bad love.

Blondie is one of those women who loves too much. She's tries to be Harlow the way Madonna tries to be Monroe. Jennifer Jason Leigh's voice may grate but it resembles Harlow's in an uncanny way. Most people don't actually look at Harlow's movies, so they have the wrong impression of what kind of star she was.

Blondie's guy, Johnny, has put on black-face to waylay a black gambler en route to the Hey-Hey Club, which happens to run some tables in the back room. But Johnny is too stupid by double and is flushed out by Seldom Seen, the king of black gambling. In a desperate gamble herself, Blondie kidnaps Carolyn, the wife of a powerful politician, an action inadvertently liberating a woman so lonely she lives in permanent laudanum haze. The women form a strange bond - Carolyn is devoid of passion and Blondie is overflowing. In the end, Carolyn rallies to relieve Blondie's misery, and the story redeems itself from a kind of gangster formula.

Altman's experience infuses this film. Early in his career he directed TV episodes of "The Roaring Twenties". There's traces of "Thieves Like Us" here, as well. And the structural use of music he used in "Nashville". A master at narrative braiding, Altman pursues a theme as if he were a musician, not a novelist. He gets performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Miranda Richardson that make them look, respectively, like a nervous little magpie and proud, mean swan. They're dangerous women, both of them.

Altman has done his birthplace proud. He makes it look tough and he justifies its jazz. This is a man who knows something about getting his licks in.

Altman has also done his birthplace proud. He makes it look tough, and he justifies its jazz. What more could you want from a movie called "Kansas City"?

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