“Kansas City” is a very personal film for director Robert Altman. Altman was born in Kansas City in 1925, and began his career there, directing over 65 short business films until moving to Hollywood in 1957. At the age of 71, Altman delivered this two-hour story about the people who’d lived in Kansas City – the wealthy, the criminals, and especially the nightclub musicians.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Blondie O’Hara, first seen delivering morphine to a wealthy politician’s wife. (“Works fast, doesn’t it?”) She’s kidnapping the addict to set in motion a desperate plan – blackmailing the politician into using his connections to free Blondie’s husband, who’s been captured by gangsters. Harry Belafonte plays the gangster – “Seldom Seen” – who runs a downtown jazz joint called “Club Hey Hey.”
Altman has a real fondness for this part of the city, using real jazz musicians to recreate the 1930s club, playing legends like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The same year Altman had completed “Jazz ’34,” a recreation of a Kansas City nightclub which was nominated for two Emmy awards. For this movie, Altman even added the character of a 14-year-old Charlie Parker, absorbing the music from the balcony. But the jazz isn’t limited to the club. The entire film uses an outstanding jazz soundtrack, and some argue the highlight of the film is a five-minute sequence with a furious saxophone jam session.
To increase the tension, the script places its events the night before a crucial election. But that’s probably the movie’s biggest fault – it clings to one simple story line, and Blondie’s character is unsympathetic and uninteresting. Altman’s films are usually packed with many stories creating intrigue simply by cutting from one story to the next. Unfortunately, “Kansas City” only offers the fate of Blondie’s low-life husband. And it’s not a particularly interesting plot.
The wealthy characters are shown to be in a loveless marriage, mirroring the fact that the city of Kansas City was ruled by a political machine. The movie captures the facts of power and powerlessness – but without generating an effective drama out of them. The film ends with an unexpected murder that’s arbitrary and unexplained, which left audiences with an unpleasant taste as they headed for the exits. You could call it a “dark” or “cynical” plot, but the strange story ultimately isn’t meaningful; it’s just confusing!