“Flock of Four” is a clumsily-titled but warm and likable amble through the 1950s LA jazz scene. Co-writer director Gregory Caruso conjures up a lightly amusing quest comedy that finds its edge in the subject of race, its warmth in the lost world of South Central and its novelty in a bunch of white Pasadena teenagers clinging to jazz when their peers, and most every black person they meet, is already talking about it in the past tense.
It’s 1959, and Joey Grover (Braeden Lemasters) has never given up the jazz his dad taught him at the piano. He’s the most talented guy in the little quartet that rehearses in his garage. Arch (Uriah Shelton) can never get his lungs around a winning sax solo, though the rhythm section, Bud (Isaac Jay) on bass and Louie (Dylan Riley Snyder) on drums, is solid.
Rock and roll is here to stay, but these guys are boats against the current, especially Joey. And a plug on the radio mentioning that legendary drummer Pope Davis is appearing that night at one of South Central’s last jazz clubs has Joey hellbent on dragging them all there to see The Pope “before it’s too late.”
Caruso treats us to scenes that have become pop culture tropes — the local diner, with its pop-hits-packed jukebox, the greasers — high school poseurs who all happen to be Italian American. It’s familiar, but try to remember the last time this “American Graffiti/Happy Days” cliche was trotted out in a feature film.
The lads dash off, even though South Central was scary to suburban kids, even back then. They go even though Joey’s older brother (Shane Harper) has forbidden it, and enlisted his girlfriend (Gatlin Kate James) and greaser Tony (Connor Paolo), who has a car, to track them down.
And the jazz quartet can’t be encouraged when the taxi dumps them off nowhere near where they want to be, and the first black kids they meet — Johnny Otis fans — laugh in their faces.
“These cats ain’t got any rhythm…OR blues.”
The night’s quest bounces from club to club, wending its way toward the famed Dunbar Hotel, historically the swankiest “colored” hotel in LA.
And we meet sibling jazz fans, friendly torch singer Ava (Coco Jones) and her testy, racially touchy brother Clifford (Nadji Jeter). Can they help? I mean, with Joey’s brother so determined to head them off?
“They’re trying to take us back to PASADENA!”
Clifford scowls, “Wow. That would be…so terrible.”
He’s the voice of Civil Rights era outrage, not all that happy to be helping out these guys who, 60 years later, would be assailed for “cultural appropriation.” He’s bent on exposing their unfitness to play the music.
You know how these stories play out. The kids end up on stage, tested. The racial tolerance of one and all is also tested, and some fail.
Inevitably, quests like this are let down when “the great man/woman” they’re seeking finally shows up. Either he’s a no show (“The Commitments”) or so poorly written and cast that one and all realize what a waste the quest has been.
Not here. Reg E. Cathey of “The Wire,” “House of Cards” and “St. Vincent,” a one-time jazz player, makes Pope Davis the weary, wary and grizzled survivor of jazz and racism in America that the movie absolutely needs him to be. His scenes bring weight to a movie that is otherwise light and inconsequential. Dude can even predict the future.
“Know what they’ll call the decade that killed jazz? The SIXTIES!”
Cathey’s little speech reminded me of something Michael Jai White noted when his cult blaxploitation spoof “Black Dynamite” came out. “Black people,” he opined, “when they’re over something, it’s DONE. Jazz, blues, blaxploitation movies.”
It’s these better-late-than-never suburbanites who “appropriate” the culture and keep it on life support.
“Flock of Four” never achieves the giddy highs of a “Diner” or the classics of this genre and period. But it varies the formula just enough to set up the finale. And then Cathey, maestro that he is, brings in on home with a killer solo.
MPAA Rating: unrated, racism, fisticuffs, mild profanity
Running time: 1:20