AMERICAN BLUE NOTE, directed by Ralph Toporoff and written by Gilbert Girion, is an uneven but often wry and charming American independent, an amiable but loose and rambling series of scenes illustrating the misadventures and tribulations of a fledgling New York City jazz combo.
The promising quintet assembled by sax player Jack Solow (Peter MacNicol) includes pianist Jerry (Carl Capotorto), who lives with his mother Louise (Zohra Lampert) and crazy grandfather (Maury Cooper); drummer Bobby (Tim Guinee); bassist Lee (Bill Christopher-Myers); and trumpeter Tommy (Jonathan
Walker), who has a wife Sharon (Margaret Devine) and children and yearns to play his own music.
The group give Jack one year to get the quintet booked into a 52nd-Street jazz club, during which time they pay their dues with a series of $4-a-head weekend gigs at weddings and flyspecked locales in New Jersey, invariably booked by different agents all named Katz and where the sole requirements
are that they can play "Italian" or "Irish" and have their own transportation. That provisional year passes quickly, and the guys' friendship and love for music are the only things holding them together. They're stuck in a Catch-22: they play jazz well but can only get nothing jobs where they
can't play it. Meanwhile, Jack, who's been putting the group's needs ahead of his own, decides to take a chance on a relationship with a young ballet teacher named Benita (Charlotte D'Amboise).
Some scenes don't work at all and seem interminable and esoteric, like one in which Jack's Uncle Leon (Jeff Weiss) begs Jack's forgiveness for "wrongs" done to his family. Most of this material, however, is nicely observed and inventive, like a scene in which a union hall receptionist (Roma
Maffia) fields Jack's frantic questions while inconsolably weeping, and another in which the band, on their way home, help fix a flat tire for the bride and groom at whose reception they just finished playing and wind up performing roadside for them.
The pivotal and longest sequence has the boys at the Golden Slipper nightclub, run by Nat Joy (Sam Behrens). Lee has stood them up, and Jack grabs a jazz-buff gas station attendant (James Puig) to "fake" playing bass--his initial fright soon turns to stylish zeal--while a drunken patron (Mel
Johnson Jr.) joins them onstage to sing an unexpectedly knockout, soulful rendition of "Blue Midnight." For a fleeting moment, the sheer love of music overrides all obstacles. Lee, alone, has moved on to 52nd Street, and the band's breakup (their last gig is an amateur recital for Benita's
students) coincides with the loss of innocence as the 60s grow increasingly blacker with assassinations, Vietnam, drugs, etc. As Lee says, "It was fun" while it lasted, and the movie ends on a note of genuine sadness, as at the ending of a dream.
Shot largely in New Jersey, AMERICAN BLUE NOTE often shows the technical limits of its obvious low budget. Performances vary (and the veteran Lampert is wasted in a single scene), with several of the actors clearly not up to some of the seemingly improvised dialogue, although star MacNicol (a
respected New York stage actor who has appeared in SOPHIE'S CHOICE and GHOSTBUSTERS II) is quite good. Larry Schanker's original jazz score occasionally cooks. The picture carries a 1989 copyright. (Profanity.)
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