Music Movie Mondays: Kansas City
Few directors divide up a room full of film snobs like Robert Altman, even if they’re fans. Genius auteur or studio hack? Feminist ally or venerate misogynist?
Depending on the movie, I’ve felt all of these markers apply to the mercurial director. I’ll defend Nashville, California Split, The Player, 3 Women, The Company, most of Short Cuts, and the great-though-overpraised McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I loathed Dr. T and the Woman and could not get through Tanner ’88. I still don’t know what to do with Brewster McCloud, though watching a movie where bird shit is used as an augury in as magnificently appointed a venue as Austin’s Paramount Theatre is a memory I’ll always treasure. Kansas City, which stars Harry Belafonte as gangster Seldom Seen and features musicians Craig Handy, Joshua Redman, James Carter, and Geri Allen as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Mary Lou Williams.
I also don’t know what to do with 1996’s Kansas City, a Depression-era crime caper. I was interested in seeing it after reading Krin Gabbard’s essay “Kansas City Dreamin’: Robert Altman’s Jazz History Lesson.” Gabbard uses the movie to make the case for how movies construct histories through the interplay between imitation and inspiration. He also links Kansas City to notable characteristics in Altman’s oeuvre, particularly his employment of black actors, his interest in depicting interracial interactions, and his use of music to cohere seemingly unrelated characters and narratives. All three components are evident in Kansas City, which stars Harry Belafonte as gangster Seldom Seen and features musicians Craig Handy, Joshua Redman, James Carter, and Geri Allen as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Mary Lou Williams.
Gabbard also posits that Altman is linking himself to the subject matter, noting the movie’s place and time as where and when the director and co-writer came of age. The clearest indication of thematic confluence resides in Albert J. Burnes’s performance as a prepubescent Charlie Parker, who was five years older than Altman and, like the director, is positioned as a fan and student of his favorite musicians. I feel uncomfortable with the pairing, as this supposed kinship needs considerably more nuance around the two men’s racial identities and class backgrounds.
Furthermore, I find Altman knows little of what to do with Pearl Cummings (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a pregnant black teenage girl who befriends Parker after the society ladies who are supposed to check her into a safe home to deliver her baby fail to collect her from the station. Her story collides with the main plot, which focuses on a gun moll named Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) kidnapping Carolyn Stilton, a local politician’s wife, (Miranda Richardson) to barter for her husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney), who’s under Seen’s heel. Though I like Blondie and Carolyn’s burgeoning friendship amid tense circumstances, Leigh makes the deliberate and unfortunate choice of overplaying Blondie as a hard-boiled imitation of the character’s film idols.
While certainly an interesting exercise, Kansas City left me with little to celebrate.