Passion projects are always a risky prospect. Too often the filmmaker becomes blinded by their proximity to the story that they can’t see potential flaws that are evident to others. In the case of Robert Altman, whose most celebrated films (Nashville, The Long Goodbye, The Player) are sprawling, rambling epics as a matter of course, one goes into this ode to his home town with a sense of trepidation. While Kansas City does suffer from the excesses and self-indulgence you would expect of such a film, this crime drama set during Altman’s jazz-age childhood
Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnaps laudanum-riddled socialite Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson). She hopes that Carolyn’s politician husband can pull some strings to rescue Blondie’s low-level gangster husband Jonny (Dermot Mulroney) from crime boss Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Jonny has robbed one of Seldom’s best gambling clients. The big wig isn’t that bothered by the robbery but is furious that the bumbling thief carried it out while in blackface. This all takes place during the backdrop of corrupt local elections, where hundreds of homeless people are bussed in to vote for Franklin Roosevelt.
Altman’s love of jazz is the pulsing backbone of Kansas City. The musical score is provided by contemporary musicians playing live in the style of the legends of the 30s; the massed ranks of them packing out Seldom’s Hey Hey Club. The films is bisected by a prolonged ‘Cutting Competition’ between two saxophonists performing as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. It’s edited like a fight scene and brings the same urgency and exhilaration that Damien Chazelle would bring to the extraordinary Whiplash two decades later. It’s arguable that it is in fact the highlight of the movie.
The theme of performance can also be seen in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of Blondie. Blondie’s obsessed with Jean Harlow, to the point that she drags the captive Carolyn with her to see one of poor, doomed Jean’s films at the cinema. When she interacts with her hostage, and in an early scene at the Hey Hey Club, she plays up the tough, brassy persona of her idol. She’s been criticised in some quarters for appearing to be acting in a different movie to everyone else, but this rather misses the point. Blondie’s obviously out of her depth, acting out of misguided love for her no-good husband, and in her desperation has adopted a role to wear like a suit of armour. That her vulnerability is evident is testament to Leigh’s skill.
As always with Altman, the atmosphere is tangible. You can almost smell the smoke of the clubs, the chatter of the punters, and the skirl of instruments being tuned. The story itself is less inspiring, though marked with some great performances; notably from a quietly menacing Belafonte, known far more for his signature musical performances such as the folk opera Porgy and Bess. However, his role here shows another string to his bow that we sadly never got to see too see enough.
Altman deserves credit for attempting to capture the sights, sounds and mood of his childhood instead of making a straight autobiographical feature. There’s a sense of heightend, romanticised excess that could have come directly from a young child’s imagination. Whatever the narrative shortcomings, and narrative was often of secondary concern to him throughout his career, it’s this affection for a particular time and place that shines bright in gloomy Kansas City.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 2 Mar 2020