Returning to the city of his birth for inspiration, legendary maverick director Robert Altman helms an evocative, bullet-riddled tribute to the music and movies of his youth in Kansas City, a Depression-era gangster flick as only he could make one.
Blondie O’Hara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) resorts to desperate measures when her low-level hood husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) gets caught trying to steal from Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte), a local crime boss operating out of jazz haunt The Hey-Hey Club. Out on a limb, Blondie kidnaps laudanum-addled socialite Carolyn (Miranda Richardson), hoping her influential politician husband can pull the right strings and get Johnny out of Seldom Seen’s clutches.
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and featuring a remarkable soundtrack performed live by some of the best players in contemporary jazz, one of Altman’s most underrated and idiosyncratic films finally makes its long-awaited Blu-ray™ debut.
Arrow Academy presents Robert Altman’s unfairly overlooked Kansas City to Blu-ray, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 on a dual-layer disc. Arrow has been given a digital master by MK2 and it has been encoded at 1080p/24hz. No details are provided on the source.
Unfortunately this is not a new master by any means, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was created back in the DVD days, possibly for MK2’s own French DVD, or even New Line’s. The image, overall, looks dark and murky. Granted, the film is dark, and a good chunk of it takes place in Belafonte’s character’s club, which is dark and smokey, so it’s suiting. But the overall image, even in the brighter scenes, still looks muddy and bland. Film grain looks a little clumpy, suggesting but keeps a mostly natural look; at the very least it doesn’t look noisy or blocky. Unfortunately there is the occasional bit of ringing present around darker objects over brighter backgrounds, and tighter details can have a slight shimmer to them when there is movement, like the grills of the cars.
There are few marks here and there, but damage is still minimal. Motion looks okay but quicker movements have a slight blur and trail to them. Colours are a strong point; though the film is made up primarily of browns and the like, there are nice pops of green and blue, even red. Black levels are muddy, more gray, but crushing wasn’t a real concern. In the end it is passable, but it does have more of a video look rather than a film-like one, and it’s unfortunate a newer master couldn’t be created.
The film comes with two English audio tracks, both a 2.0 stereo surround track and 5.1 surround remix, in DTS-HD MA. I only listened to the 5.1 track.
It’s a good mix, though front heavy. Most of the action, which is dialogue, is front focused, but scenes in the club, outside, in the train station, or scenes with shooting and some action, do spread the mix out to the other speakers, with natural movement. It’s not showy in any way shape or form, but it works for the film, and the Jazz music sounds especially great, with excellent fidelity and range.
Arrow does an impressive job with their special edition, trying to gather together all features from previous editions released in other countries (most notably the French DVD from 2007 and the recent German Blu-ray from 2019). First up is the 2005 audio commentary recorded for the New Line DVD, featuring director Robert Altman. Altman’s tracks can be hit or miss for me (at least when he’s going solo), but this may be my favourite of his. I suspect this is because of the more personal nature of the track, since Altman grew up in the area the film takes place, during the same time period, so he has a lot of personal recollections, sharing stories about the people and situations that influenced aspects of this film. A lot of these stories also focus around his father (apparently the basis for Michael Murphy’s character in the film, though I don’t believe Altman’s father was a politician), who knew his fair share of gangsters, who would go duck hunting with him. This all leads to him explaining how he wanted to depict the era and the social and cultural divides, specifically between the different black and white cultures. He also talks about certain aspects of the film modern audiences might find offensive, though were not uncommon at the time (the use of the N-word, the use of blackface, though in the latter instance it was used in the film more as a plot point to only further enrage Belafonte’s gangster), and he gets into his own thoughts on cinema, where movies were going at the time (2005), and even talks about his feelings on needing to see films more than once for them to register and how feelings can change overtime. For the latter point, he brings up the then-recent release of 3 Women on DVD, noting how the film was trashed originally but was being reassessed thanks to that home video release. He also defends aspects of the film he feels critics got wrong, and he is especially defensive of Leigh’s performance, feeling critics didn’t understand her character was imitating what she saw in the movies of the time, Jean Harlow being her biggest influence (Roger Ebert, in his review, did get this). It’s a solid track, covering the technical details in recreating the area, the basis for characters and moments in the film (thanks to the many personal stories he shares), and Altman’s own thoughts on making movies. Again, I feel it’s his best track (of the tracks I have listened to).
Arrow adds a new exclusive feature, an interview with critic Geoff Andrew. Feeling the film has been unfairly overlooked, Andrew explains why he feels the film is one of Altman’s best works, covering the many layers, its structure, its music, and the personal nature of it. He does repeat a number of things Altman mentions in his track, but he offers an excellent academic slant to it, and despite my already being fond of the film I did garner a bigger appreciation for it, which I had also gained after listening to Altman’s track.
Arrow then ports over two features from the French DVD (which also made their way to the German Blu-ray), both by critic Luc Lagier and both in French: one is a 4-minute introduction, going over Altman’s early career, his 90s resurgence (after kind of falling into obscurity) and how the film has been unfairly overlooked, while the other is a 16-minute visual essay. The essay examines the film’s time and place, contextualizing it to the Great Depression, and looking at how the film represents Jazz music and musicians of the time. He also looks at how the film defies genre conventions, a common Altman technique as he shows by bringing up The Long Goodbye, M*A*S*H, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It might get a little too arty in its own way, but it’s still nicely put together and does a good job at looking at the film’s unique and strong aspects.
Arrow then provides a large section devoted to the film’s Electronic Press Kit, loaded with all sorts of promotional featurettes and interviews from the time. Robert Altman Goes to the Heart of America is a 9-minute featurette that is both an advertisement and behind-the-scenes look at the film, with Altman and members of the cast talking about the film, its story, and the level of work that has gone into it. Kansas City Music is another 9-minute feature, cut together from similar material as the last feature (and interviews that appear elsewhere in the disc), and goes over the music of the era and how it was recreated for this film. You will also find a few archival interviews (running over a couple minutes each) with Altman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, and musician Joshua Redman. Following all of this is over 2-minutes’ worth behind-the-scenes footage.
Arrow then goes all out and gathers together all of the trailers that have appeared through the various home video releases for the film: The US trailer, international trailer, French trailer, and German trailer. They also throw in some TV spots and a self-running, 4-minute photo gallery, which can also be jumped through using the chapter buttons. It features production photos, posters, and home video art.
First printings also come with a booklet, first featuring an essay by co-lead of the Jazz Studies Cluster at Birmingham City University, Dr. Nicolas Pillai, looking at the film’s capturing of the era, and then followed by original production notes, and excerpts of an interview with Altman from David Thompson’s (not Thomson) Altman on Altman. It’s a good booklet and great addition on its own, so if one can pick the Blu-ray up now I’d recommend doing so to make sure you get it.
This release also feature reversible cover art, the main side featuring new artwork and the alternate side featuring an original poster.
Altogether I have to say Arrow has done a commendable job doing the film justice. Only one feature is new (the Andrew interview) but I appreciate the fact they were able to get just about all of the features from the film’s various releases from around the world, the only notable item missing probably being the content of the booklet for the German Blu-ray. The features also managed to elevate my appreciation for the film, despite my already being fond of it.
It’s a great special edition for the film, and I think it does the film justice, but it’s still unfortunate Arrow is working with what is obviously an older master, one I wouldn’t be surprised to learn was initially made for any of the older DVD editions.