That's the surface. Underneath, Altman has assembled a series of jazz-inflected riffs about class consciousness, political power and race based on his memories of a place where the law was highly flexible but the local social codes were chiseled in stone. As if to underscore the point, Kansas City is dominated by a movie-long jam session at Seldom Seen's Hey Hey Club, where legendary musicians like Ben Webster, Mary Lou Williams and Count Basie blow the days and nights away in exuberant defiance of the dangerous melodramas playing themselves out beyond the doors of the place.
Unfortunately, the idea of the film--the drama of life as constant improvisation--proves better than its execution. The two dozen jazz lions, young and old, Altman has brought together to reinterpret the music of the age are uniformly splendid, and the six-minute tenor sax battle between Craig Handy's Coleman Hawkins and Joshua Redman's Lester Young, which bisects the movie, will go down as one of the greatest jazz sequences ever shot. Oddly, though, Kansas City itself feels like one of the least improvisational efforts of the visionary who gave free rein to ad-lib dialogue, contrapuntal themes and actor invention in loose-limbed masterpieces such as Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Short Cuts. Ironically, the Duke Ellington of American filmmaking--the master orchestrator--plays his charts pretty straight, character- and story-wise, in the first movie where he directly acknowledges his artistic debt to jazz.
Jason Leigh's Blondie, just to start, is one predictable sack of woe. A collection of tough-dame gestures she's picked up at the talkies, she gets more than she bargained for when she abducts lofty Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), a desolate rich woman who's so whacked out on laudanum that she often can't tell where she is or who she's with. Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt (also a K.C. native) try to make a big deal of the social gulf between the two women and the peculiar bond that eventually joins kidnapper and victim. But their sometimes comic misadventures in the gloomy Depression city have an air of instruction about them. When Blondie cracks wise ("Yer not gonna go yellow-pants on me, are ya?"), we hear no more than vintage movie attitude talking through her. And when Carolyn presumes to sit in a black woman's parlor and lay out her paternalistic views on race and society, the effect is less satirical than hackneyed. That the woman she's lecturing happens to be Addie Parker (Jeff Feringa), the mother of future jazz great Charlie Parker, is supposed to add resonance to the encounter. But the stiff, sociological air of the scene butts heads with the loose, jazzy tone Altman is going for.
Down at the Hey Hey Club, the tempo picks up. In the basement, the cunning club owner and killer Seldom Seen has Blondie's punk thief of a husband, Johnny O'Hara (Dermot Mulroney), firmly in hand while he decides how and when to kill him. Johnny has foolishly taken down one of Seldom's best gambling customers. Not only that, he's done the deed in blackface. In the midst of a slow burn, Seldom Seen launches into the most purely Altmanesque monologues of the piece--a chorus here on Marcus Garvey and race; two choruses there on the hierarchy of gangsterdom; a little cadenza on the fix that poor, dumb Johnny is in. For Belafonte, who has appeared in very few major movies in the past twenty years, this must have been heaven. It is for us. Calling on his wisdom and experience, he riffs on the dialogue and runs all the changes. Part preacher, part stand-up comic, part soloist, he's sheer pleasure to watch and listen to. Clearly, Seldom's rambling, seriocomic improvisations are what the filmmaker has been shooting for all along but cannot sustain in the other characters.
Meanwhile, upstairs at the club, young Nineties jazzers like New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Geri Allen and the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist James Carter play Greek chorus to the proceedings below and without. Wisely, there's less attempt to literally re-create the watershed Kansas City jazz of the Thirties than to recapture its energy and verve. Redman, for instance, does not reproduce Lester Young's swift, ethereal style, and Carter, a busy mimic who loves to cram the entire history of jazz saxophone into every measure, only now and then gives us the big, whispery seductions of Ben Webster. But their spirits are present.
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.