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 premire. "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."
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."
This is an experiment nobody has tried before, and Altman admits it was risky to stake a Hollywood-sized budget on it. "I didn't know if it would work," he says, "and I don't know if it does work. But this is what I wanted to attempt. If people 'get it,' then they really tend to like it. If they don't - if they thought they were going to get something like 'Nashville,' or if they think the story is too thin - well, that's too bad. The story is just a little song, and it's the way it's played that's important."
As a jazz movie with no major roles for musicians, "Kansas City" is certainly an odd piece of work. But in other ways it fits comfortably with Altman's prior career. In his most respected movies, from "MASH" and "Nashville" to "The Player" and "Short Cuts," he has assembled many first-rate acting talents and allowed them an amazing amount of freedom in developing their own characters, actions, and even dialogue. In sum, he has often functioned less like an everyday movie director than a master conductor who orchestrates individual riffs and melodies into smoothly harmonious wholes.
Altman agrees with this analysis but stresses the intuitive and spontaneous nature of his work. "I don't start with that idea or sit down with a master plan," he says. "But after the fact I say, 'Oh, this is what I did!' And since all the material [for a film] passes through me, it's going to vaguely have my shape.... So, of course, there are connections between all my films. And yet I'm always trying to make a different film than I've made before."
When he speaks about new approaches, Altman is referring more to style than to plot. "I'm not so much interested in stories," he says. "With this movie, I saw clearly that it was like a song, and the lyrics are kind of thin, but I don't give you lots of details because I'm not interested in that. It's just a song!"
Also of interest to Altman is the history of jazz as an integral part of African-American culture. Running through "Kansas City" is an awareness of music as a key means of black expression, often coded with hidden meanings that insiders can thrill to while outsiders - including white ones - listen in blissful ignorance.
Reviews of "Kansas City" were lukewarm after its Cannes debut. Some praised its energetic music and glowing camera work, but others faulted its slender story and criticized some performances - especially Leigh's portrayal of the inept kidnapper, a plain and ordinary woman who's gotten the inexplicable idea that she's a look-alike for movie star Jean Harlow.
Altman takes the mixed reviews in stride. "Everything's an experiment," he says of his work. "If I knew how everything was going to be done, I'd always be late for work, because it would be dull. But this is exciting for me because every day I'm a little scared, since I'm not quite sure what's going to succeed and what isn't."
In any case, the response of real moviegoers is more important - and Altman would rather have spectators arguing over his work than quietly agreeing about it, since this means he's been as daring and "experimental" as he set out to be.
"If I can hook 51 percent," he says of his audience, "I've certainly won the day. If I get 'em all, I've probably made a really bad picture!"