Missing the High Notes

This works, for jazz is a living art that stretches always toward renewal. These musicians (drummer Victor Lewis, bassists Ron Carter and Christian McBride and avant-garde saxophonist David Murray are among the others) bow to the masters and do honor to evolution. Sorry to say, the collision of gangsters, molls and politicians in Kansas City never quite measures up to the music. The local election is fixed, of course, a fact Altman demonstrates with a single, ruthless roundup of "voters" in a corner saloon. Blondie's quest to exchange Mrs. Stilton for her beloved bad boy Johnny is also fixed, and we see that coming a long way off. If this is, as Altman claims, a film inspired by the fluid structure and vivid surprises of jazz, should we be able to figure out what happens in the final bars? Moviegoers might do better to buy the soundtrack CD or wait for the all-music video based on Kansas City.

In the meantime, jazz lovers will be happy to note that the fourteen-year-old boy (Albert J. Burnes) hanging around the edges of the movie, the kid sitting enthralled in the balcony of the Hey Hey Club, saying nothing but taking it all in, is Charlie Parker himself, the future father of bebop. You can't help speculating that he might also be the alter ego of another creative Kansas City teenager who haunted those balconies in the Thirties, by the name of Robert Altman. What a pity that this most nostalgic of his 31 films is not also the best of them.

Kansas City. Screenplay by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt. Directed by Robert Altman. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte and Dermot Mulroney.

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