Kansas City

Director: Robert Altman

Robert Altman’s latest film is the realisation of a long-cherished project which had to await the veteran director’s return from the commercial wilderness before receiving financial backing. Altman was born is Kansas, where he spent much of his youth hanging out in the city’s jazz clubs. In its heyday during the thirties, Kansas City was a crime as well as a jazz hot spot, a place where corrupt politicians rubbed shoulders with mobsters and jazzmen. Dubbed the Paris of the Plains, K.C. florished, both culturally and commercially, as the rest of the U.S. slumped during the Great Depression.
The film is set in 1934 and, in typical Altman fashion, it interweaves a large number of stories and characters. As ‘Boss’ Tom Pendergast (Jerry Fornelli) begins one of hs violent election campaigns, jazz musicians congregate for a mammoth ‘cutting session’. Meanwhile, Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young telegraph operator, devises a silly plan to kidnap Carolyn Stanton (Miranda Richardson), the drug-addled wife fo a political advisor to President Roosevelt, O’Hara, who naively models herself on screen idol Jean Harlow, imagines that she can use Carolyn to save her boyfriend Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), a petty theif being held by gang boss and night-club owner Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). A bond develops between the two women, who undergo a transformation before being engulfed by the swell of corruption.
Kansas City combines elements from many previous Altman classics, including his earlier Depression-era genre piece Thieves Like Us, the female-centred Three Women, and even his epic portraits of the state of the nation, Nashville and Short Cuts. But the key to the new film is jazz, whose freewheeling aesthetic could be seen as the musical equivalent to Altman’s methods as a filmmaker. The whole structure of this film relates to jazz, Altman has said, and this concept obviously extends beyond the marvellous jazz sessions that punctuate the narrative. Thus, as Altman sees it, even the actors (who don’t actually play musical instruments) do riffs. Harry Belafonte is the trumpet, Dermot Mulroney comes in as a trombone, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Miranda Richardson are tenor saxophones…
Granting actors such freedom carries certain risks, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s somewhat mannered performance has irritated some critics. However, there are no disagreements about Belafonte’s star turn as Seldom Seen, the very intelligent and very deadly black gangster. Belafonte spent a great deal of time preparing for the role and even wrote his own spellbinding monologues about racism, violence and jazz. It’s a superb performance.
Jazz fans will be pleased to discover that Altman also has given pride of place to some great music. One of the highlights of the film is recreation of a legendary ‘cutting session’ involving such luminaries as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, who are played in the film by Joshua Redman and Christian McBride. This exciting sequence was shot with live sound, and the spontaneity of the music-making is, like the film as a whole, quite intoxicating.

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