Director Builds Metaphor for Jazz in 'Kansas City' INTERVIEW ROBERT ALTMAN

Article excerpt

Movies and jazz have a long history together, from Hollywood oldies like "Paris Blues" and "Young Man With a Horn" to more recent pictures like "Round Midnight" and Clint Eastwood's beautiful "Bird."

The newest jazz movie seeking a wide audience is "Kansas City," with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Harry Belafonte in a story of love, crime, and intrigue set against the African-American jazz scene of the 1930s.

What sets it apart from most jazz pictures is the fact that music accompanies much of the story, but it never takes over and becomes the main subject of the film. This breaks the pattern for jazz-oriented movies - and that's perfectly all right with director Robert Altman, who has devoted his career to breaking patterns ever since innovative works like "MASH" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" gave him a permanent place in the filmmaking hall of fame.

"Kansas City" tells two meandering, sometimes-violent stories that finally come together near the end of the picture. One centers on a disreputable white man named Johnny who tries to rob a black tourist, gets caught in the act, and winds up in the clutches of an elusive and dangerous nightclub impresario.

The other shows how Johnny's wife makes an inept effort to save him, by kidnapping the wife of a presidential adviser whose influence might somehow help Johnny out of his predicament. Much of the plot focuses on these women and the offbeat relationship they develop during the long tense hours they spend together.

Jazz is central to the movie in two ways. The most obvious is its jumping, jiving presence in the background of all the nightclub scenes, lending vivid atmosphere to what could have been ordinary "film noir" crime and suspense episodes.

Just as important is the role jazz played as basic inspiration for the movie, which could be called a "melodrama" in the original sense of that word - a drama with music as an essential part of its fabric.

"It all began with an attempt to use jazz music as the score of a film," said Altman during a conversation at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Kansas City" had its premiere. "People say if you use jazz, the movie has to be about a jazz subject. That doesn't work for me, because I don't want to make a film about {jazz} players. Then a few years ago it occurred to me that if I'm going to deal with jazz, that should be the structure of the whole movie."

Freewheeling improv

Altman usually puts his films together in some unconventional way - and this has often involved music, as when "Nashville" worked country music into every aspect of its story, or when "Short Cuts" centered some of its most involving sequences on characters who deal with music in their everyday lives. But in "Kansas City" he wanted to try yet another new approach, making the movie itself into a kind of freewheeling jazz improvisation.

"A song is usually about three minutes long," he explains, "but when jazz guys work on it, the song takes 17 minutes. I decided to make a song out of the story of the two women. As it developed, the whole movie is jazz. Harry Belafonte is like a brass instrument - when it's his turn to solo, he does long monologues and riffs - and the discussions of the two women are like reed instruments, maybe saxophones, having duets. So it's really all about music. …