Blu-ray Review: Kansas City (1996)

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From the stirring ballads of McCabe and Mrs. Miller to the country yearning of Nashville and soulful blues of Cookie's Fortune, music in the movies of Robert Altman comes in many forms. Complementing the high and low notes sung by his characters — in the vein of the overlapping dialogue that has become an Altman trademark — with his clever use of music to set the dramatic stage, the maverick filmmaker wields sound impressionistically, the way a painter swirls color around a canvas with a brush.

Regularly usurping his film scores, whether it's in the drawing room sing-alongs of Gosford Park or the vaudevillian numbers of A Prairie Home Companion and beyond, Altman uses the public performances of songs to not only create a mood but also transplant us into the heart of each work. Much more than just a single filmmaking tool he has at his disposal, frequently in his oeuvre, music becomes the most important one. Transcending the screen to have as much of an impact on him as it does on us, it informs his subtly ever-changing filmmaking M.O. And nowhere is this approach more evident post-Nashville than in his jazz fueled, forgotten '96 effort Kansas City.

Using jazz's signature improvisational riffs to build its narrative structure, the movie takes a look at vice, music, politics, and corruption over a twenty-four hour period when Missouri is set to hold a consequential 1934 election. While initially it plays like the latest in a long line of Altman's meandering ensemble dramedies, we quickly learn that, although they sound great jamming together, each character we meet in Kansas City doubles as an instrument and all will get their chance to solo.

Anchored by '90s Altman regular Jennifer Jason Leigh as a desperate woman who holds a politician's laudanum addicted wife hostage to secure the release of her hoodlum husband from a jazz club gangster, Kansas City is a crime film that — true to the director's work — is far less interested in plot than it is captivated by its characters.

Performing depression era slang in the hard and fast key of screwball (regardless of the scene's tone), Leigh tries her best to sell lines like "don't try to high-hat me," "park the body, sister," "and put some snap into it" which, when taken cumulatively, land far less than they detract from the goings-on. A Jean Harlowesque Girl From Missouri who's just wild about her man, as intriguing as Leigh's spunky Blondie O’Hara seems to be, we never get a true sense of who she is as a person from one outburst to the next. And although Leigh's Blondie dominates the scenes she shares with her hostage Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson) in the film's first half, she disappears into the chorus once Richardson's increasingly curious victim takes over the bass line later on.

While Kansas City’s women propel forward a majority of the film's plot, the rest of the action is found in the booze soaked, testosterone heavy, smoke and sax filled world of the Hey-Hey Club. A jazz joint located on 18th Street where some of the '90s most talented instrumentalists bring to life the legendary sounds of Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, for a music buff like Altman who grew up listening to blues in Black clubs, City's performances feel like he's stepping back in time to show us the place he calls home.

A dynamic showcase for Harry Belafonte in a daringly against-type role as an underworld gangster who holds court at the Hey-Hey, the actor commands every scene he's in right from the jump. Like a bandleader introducing the musicians keeping the beat behind him, he uses the frame like a microphone and reaches through to tell us exactly what we need to know. From where he sits in the center of the screen, Belafonte reveals, "what's gonna happen at dawn tomorrow going to depend on what happen when the sun go down tonight. You can believe that shit," just as events kick into high gear for Blondie and Carolyn and the music that is Altman's Kansas City starts to play.

Going off on what the director refers to as "jazz riffs" throughout the film where its characters wander away from the plot like a clarinetist backing away from the melody in order to stand up and jam on their own, occasionally the dropped notes and tempo changes distract rather than enhance the musicality of its plot.

Touching on some of his favorite issues like race, class, and gender roles amid the intersection of politics and vice, Kansas City feels like a thematic cousin to his musically minded 1975 masterpiece Nashville. A flawed yet still fascinating opus that rarely comes up in a conversation about the filmmaker's most beloved works that span his fifty year career, Kansas City is additionally dwarfed by the popularity of his other ‘90s output, in the form of the brilliant films Short Cuts and (my personal favorite) The Player.

Seeing it for the first time in twenty-four years however, in this stunningly remastered, special features loaded new Blu-ray from Arrow, Altman's movie proves itself not only worthy of a second look but a second listen as well. Filled with scene-stealing soloists like Leigh, Richardson, Belafonte, and Steve Buscemi ready to grab their trumpets and blow, Kansas City is a vital reminder that nothing — absolutely nothing — sounds quite like an Altman led band playing in 4x4 time.

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