J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Blue Night

You should not judge Vivienne Carala too harshly for ignoring her body’s warning signs. When you are a jazz vocalist, you have to strike while the iron is hot and you can never stop hustling. However, missing out on her daughter’s childhood is another matter entirely, but that is the price she paid for kind of-sort of making it. A tumor diagnosis will rudely prompt her to reconsider all the choices she made throughout the fateful day before she is admitted for an invasive battery of tests and treatment in Fabien Constant’s Blue Night, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Carala has been gigging at a high level for over two decades. She is preparing for the twenty-fifth anniversary of her first Birdland gig (presumably, she has one of those weekend spots), which is an accomplishment, but instead of fulfilling her ambition of playing the main auditorium of Carnegie Hall, she might have to settle for Zankel Hall (which is also really nice).

Those were all yesterday’s concerns. This morning’s diagnosis has put everything in doubt. Yet, she still goes through the motions at a rehearsal and in press interviews. She has many people in her life she should tell, but she has trouble communicating with them (rather ironically, considering she is a vocalist in the Susannah McCorkle mold, who specializes in dramatically interpreting lyrics, rather than dazzling audiences with her chops).

Frankly, Blue Night is a lot better than you might expect, because it really looks like New York and gets a lot of the jazz details right. There is a scene shot on location in Birdland and another looks a lot like the Cornelia Street Café bar. The way Carala interacts with her musicians also feels very real (except for the fact that she is sleeping with her drummer, which happens less frequently than you might suppose). It is therefore frustrating that Constant did not have more confidence in jazz to use it for the underlying soundtrack. Instead, we hear a great deal of discordant strings.

Regardless, you have to give Sarah Jessica Parker a great deal of credit. First of all, she is willing to look her (and Carala’s age), often under harsh light and unflattering circumstances. Make no mistake, there is nothing vain about this film. She also handles Carala’s vocals with surprising taste and sensitivity. In fact, she really nicely turns a Rufus Wainwright original and a cover of Ritchie Cordell’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” that plays over the closing credits.

When it comes to the drama, Parker develops some remarkably, ambiguously poignant chemistry with Common, playing her manager Ben. She also has some honest and effective scenes with Gus Birney and Simon Baker, as her daughter and ex-husband. However, the melodrama with her high-maintenance mother Jeanne (portrayed by the scenery-gorging Jacqueline Bisset) always feel forced and phony.

Sometimes Constant hits us over the head, as in Carala’s scenes with her mother and a chance encounter with a former friend and colleague, who essentially made the opposite choice, opting to raise her family instead of pursuing her career. Yet, somehow, he uses a lighter touch for the business with a Lyft driver who keeps crossing paths with Carala. By not forcing the issue, their final meeting packs a quiet wallop. It is just too bad there isn’t more music in the film Carala would actually like to hear. Recommended with all its imperfections, Blue Night screens again this Monday (4/23) and the following Sunday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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