Tuesday, May 11, 2021

American Blue Note (1989)

Director: Ralph Toporoff                                   Writers: Ralph Toporoff & Gilbert Girion
Film Score: Larry Schanker                             Cinematography: Joey Forsyte
Starring: Peter MacNicol, Carl Capotorto, Jonathan Walker and Trini Alvarado

This is an odd little film. Years ago when I was looking for films about jazz this was one of the first I came across because, of course, Blue Note is right there in the title. American Blue Note stars Peter MacNicol, who’s best known for playing a lawyer on TV’s Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope. In this film he plays an alto saxophonist in the early sixties whose dream is to be part of a well-known jazz group in New York. The film was clearly a labor of love for writer-director Ralph Toporoff, who began his career as a photographer and then moved into cinematography, and the story is based on events from his own life. Made in 1989, the film had good reviews from the festivals it played, but Toporoff couldn’t find a U.S. distributor and so it didn’t reach theaters until two years later. That, however, is overstating the case, as a few midnight showings at downtown theaters, or matinees at the local mall were the only actual screenings it received and no one really saw it at the time. As the film is centered on a jazz group, the music is obviously important, and there are some clever touches in the film. A sort of running music gag throughout is that the audience rarely ever hears them play jazz, and one particular song, “Palm Beach Rhumba,” repeatedly represents the musical purgatory the group finds themselves in. At the same time the subdued jazz on the soundtrack is terrific. No solos, but then that’s not the point. It’s a mood setter, a laid back, West Coast cool that threatens to remain completely anonymous in New York City, and as such it’s the best possible choice for composer Larry Schanker’s score.

The film opens with Peter MacNicol answering the phone, alto saxophone hanging from his neckstrap, politely answering a telephone survey and not wanting to hang up after it’s over. The credits roll over photos, notes and sheet music of the Jack Solow Quintet, as the group plays on the soundtrack. The song, it turns out, is at an audition for the great Louis Guss. The rest of the group include trumpet player Jonathan Walker, pianist Carl Capotorto, drummer Tim Guinee and bassist Bill Christopher-Myers, and they get the gig primarily because they have a car. The group is definitely small time, but MacNicol has dreams of playing on 52nd Street at a real jazz club. He talks to club owner Joe Wrann about an audition, but the guy is noncommittal and the impression is he doesn’t want to hear them. The gig turns out to be in a tavern in Jersey, a tiny place, playing for two or three guys drinking at the bar. MacNicol’s embarrassed onstage patter is brutally painful. But then so is the conversation between the guys, and when it comes down to it really, all of the dialogue in the entire film. The tension is built around the fact that the group is about to break up, but MacNicol isn’t ready to give up on the dream yet. A new photo is MacNichol’s answer, but of course he’s just stalling for time. Their next big gig is a wedding reception with Capotorto on accordion, and more auditions are interspersed with scenes from everyday life. Meanwhile the band slowly disintegrates and MacNichol is powerless to stop it.

While the film wears its independent pedigree on its sleeve, there’s a certain charm to it all that’s difficult to describe. It should be awful, but it kind of grows on you after a while. The guys are just guys, men actually, out of college and working regular jobs but still young. And they don’t try to be “characters” in the way the guys from Diner come off. Though looking at the poster art for the film it seems that’s the audience the film was aiming for. More importantly, however, it’s the women in the film who steal the show. Zohra Lampert’s doting, mater-of-fact, Catholic mother is wonderfully understated, while Margaret Devine’s spacey coffee shop waitress is absolutely lovely. Charlotte d’Amboise captures MacNichol’s heart as well as the viewers’, and Trini Alvarado is just drop-dead gorgeous. One of my all-time favorite actresses, Roma Maffia, even has a small role as a secretary at the musicians union. Other familiar faces that turn up include Mel Johnson Jr., who takes a nice turn singing at one of the group’s gigs, and Dave Florek as a photographer. If there’s a drawback to the film it’s MacNichol’s characterization. His nervous and embarrassed behavior becomes maddening to watch over time. Everyone around him has more important things going on in their lives and yet real life seems to be the one thing he is utterly unable to navigate. So, yeah, the whole thing’s kind of strange, but American Blue Note is still worth seeking out--especially now that it’s finally been released on DVD--for its subdued portrayal of life in a simpler time.

No comments:

Post a Comment