Jazz lovers, rejoice. Robert Altman’s hypnotic riff on his hell-raising, whoremongering, crime-ridden Missouri hometown during the Depression is brimming over with vibrant, vital music. Like the young Charlie Parker played by Albert J. Burnes in the movie, Altman used to sneak into the jazz clubs on 18th and Vine to hear the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Bennie Moten. The director gathered 21 jazz greats — veterans and newcomers — to catch the period spirit. He re-enacts a jam session on sax with Craig Handy’s Coleman Hawkins in a cutting contest with Joshua Redman’s Lester Young and James Carter’s Ben Webster that will take your breath away.
Whoops, almost forgot. Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt (Short Cuts) also have a meandering story to tell that unspools over two days in 1934. The center for the film and the jazz is the Hey Hey Club, where a black gangster, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), plans revenge on a white hood, Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney), who crossed him. Johnny’s wife, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), thinks she can free her man by kidnapping socialite Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the opium-addicted wife of a Democratic honcho (Michael Murphy), and offering an exchange. It’s a nutso scheme out of the movies, which are Blondie’s drug of choice. The gun-toting Blondie wrongly fancies herself as tough as Jean Harlow, and with the help of her sister (a terrific Brooke Smith), Blondie dyes her hair for the part.
Altman plays the whisper of a plot like a jazz piece, improvising on the theme of corrupt power brokers and those they exploit. The acrors are eager instruments. Belafonte is scary perfection. And Richardson, unexpectedly touching, gnaws at you; the movie and the music seem to enter her character’s opium haze. Leigh may be hammered for her overcalculated mannerisms (bad teeth, slurred speech — the works), though she wins you over by forging an emotional bond with her captive that leads to a shocking climax. For those willing to go Altman’s insinuating way, Kansas City will haunt you like the bass duet of Ellington’s “Solitude” performed by Ron Carter and Christian McBride as the movie fades, fittingly, to black.