With all the emphasis we put on “plot” in the movies, novelty in the setting, situations and obsessions of the characters, it’s a shame when a comedy comes along that can’t make the most of a good one.
Record collecting is a tried and true movie character’s obsession. Blues history, with its “deal with the Devil” mythology, is has been fertile ground since Ralph Macchio was the Blues Kid in “Crossroads,” way back in the last millennium.
So there’s promise in the set-up, the situations and the characters of “Chasing the Blues,” an indie variation on a “Crossroads” theme. Good ideas are frittered away in the execution and the casting, not all of which can be attributed to “They didn’t have the money to do it right.”
It’s a period piece set in three periods. In the 2007 “present,) an Illinois prison inmate, played by former child actor Grant Rosenmeyer (TV’s “Oliver Beene”) is finishing up his twenty year or so sentence when he’s visiting by a drawling, smarmy Southern lawyer (Jon Lovitz). Lawyer Groome is from outside of Baton Rouge, and he has this record collection a dead client had in storage that Alan (Rosenmeyer) might be interested in.
It seems Alan’s in prison for something to do with his mania for rare blues records, way back in TV’s “L.A. Law” era.
The suggestion is, Alan never got over that. The movie’s silliest conceit is, Alan has to be 40something, because he is presented as a high school teacher in that fictive past — the 1980s.
Alan has to get out of the joint, get on a bus and meet a pretty and smart-assed young singer-guitarist (Chelsea Tavares of TV’s “Just Jordan” and “Unfabulous”). For some reason, she’s into guys with prison allegedly written all over their faces (and dated wardrobe).
“I’m gonna tell you a really good story,” Alan says, eventually. Actually, it’s two stories interconnected, and “really good” is actually not an inaccurate description.
He takes us back to his teaching/collecting days, and his youthful search for record collecting’s Holy Grail — the never-released Jimmy Kane Baldwin recording of “Death Where is Thy Sting?”
Don’t Google the song or Jimmy Kane B. They made it up.
Back in 1938, Baldwin cut this shellac 78 at Chicago’s Cicero Records (“SNL” vet Tim Kazurinsky is the recording engineer) while he was on the run from the law in Mississippi. Seems he’d murdered his woman before fleeing north.
They cut four takes of the tune, but when they finally play it back for Baldwin, he flips out. He hears screams in the background, the cries of his dying beloved. The legend is, “Only people with murder in their hearts can hear it.” And if they do, they die.
Alan, whose only references to his own crime are “I didn’t do it,” stumbled across the record in an old lady’s collection back in the 1980s. Trouble was, Alan wasn’t the only guy “tipped” about Mrs. Walker’s (Anna Maria Horsford) huge stash.
Ronald L. Conner of Showtime’s “The Chi” is Paul, owner of the neighborhood Blues Island record store. He is Alan’s nemesis and the life of the movie. Their 1980s “war” over this priceless, legendary recording dominates “Chasing the Blues, gives it what life it has, and its funniest situations and lines.
Because these two are blood rivals. Paul is not just a competitor, poaching Alan’s tips, trying to foil him at every turn.
“You collect to keep OTHER people from having it,” he says. “You hate the fact that you can’t FEEL the music.”
Yeah, he’s playing the race card. No, “cultural appropriation” wasn’t in common use back then.
Alan? He’s not hearing it. He’s an aficionado, a historian and Mr. Jheri Curls doesn’t know how many times Alan has to school the Philistines who feed him (paid) tips about record hoards.
Are you into Led Zeppelin at all?
“More into Lead BELLY.”
“A blues snob is an oxymoron! ” Paul shouts, because Paul has all the best lines. “A WHITE blues snob just a moron!”
They stumble into elderly Mrs. Walker’s apartment in the middle of a heat wave, and wait. And wait some more. She’s got to hear from her son from Down South before disposing of her late husband’s collection.
Steve Guttenberg shows up as one of Alan’s music-collecting confidantes. It’s a pity writer-director Scott Smith didn’t dig deeper into this subculture, because a lot of people dabble in collecting and a lot more are intrigued by it.
Nothing save for this middle-acts war of wills is properly developed, and while it’s fun, the inevitable return to the fictive present lets all the air out of the balloon. Smith contorted his film to shoehorn young Rosenmeyer (a younger, less interesting Shia LaBeouf) into the part.
The ungainliness of this shoehorning is obvious in all these scenes between Rosenmeyer and Tavares. There’s a little chemistry, but there’s supposed to be this much larger age difference than the casting makes clear. So. Ick.
Better to park somebody older in the lead role and a 30-40ish folkie as leading lady to underline the years sacrificed to this fool’s errand, the life it has scarred. Just making Alan a teen as the collector who then does time (shorter time) for an “I didn’t do it” crime connected with the record would have worked. Alan doesn’t need to be a teacher. He probably does need to be more charismatic than Rosenmeyer.
The ending feels like an abrupt afterthought, unsatisfying as well as illogical. The “names” in the cast don’t have enough to do, save for Conner.
There’s a movie in “Chasing the Blues,” just not the movie Smith got out of it.
MPAA Rating: gun violence, profanity
Credits:Directed by Scott Smith, script by Scott Smith, Kevin Guilfoile. A Fulton Market release.
Running time: 1:18