MOVIE REVIEW: Chasing the Blues

(Image courtesy of Fulton Market Films)

(Image courtesy of Fulton Market Films)

U.S. Indies and City & State selection and world premiere of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


Obsession comes in many forms, most of which are unbecoming of good people.  Material obsessions are ugly and expensive.  The tolls of emotional obsessions are even worse.  When a material and emotional obsession combine, watch for the real fireworks of craziness.  The material item, whether it’s a scarce baseball card or a packet of Szechuan McNugget sauce from McDonald’s, isn’t so much important as the cost and lengths the mad consumer will go to attain it.  

Premiering at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, Scott Smith’s rib-tickler Chasing the Blues centers its target of obsession on an ultra-rare and presumably cursed blues record.  But again, it’s not about the music.  It’s about the bonkers actions surrounding the prize.

Stepping into Chasing the Blues, the film pursues an urban legend of a three-fingered blues guitarist named Jimmie Kane Baldwin.  Visiting Cicero Records in Chicago from the south as a wanted man in 1938, Baldwin cuts a blues track for the ages.  It’s riffs and chords are so haunting and mind-altering that two of the four masters had to be destroyed, leaving two of the rarest records in history floating somewhere in the country.

One man who knows this musical myth well is Alan, played by lead Grant Rosenmeyer, a long way from his kid tracksuit from The Royal Tenenbaums.  Spurred by a proposition from a southern-fried con man (Jon Lovitz), Alan exits prison after a 20-year stretch with a story to tell to the eager audience of the attractive gypsy musician Vanessa (Fright Night’s Chelsea Tavares).  As it turns out, Alan has held one of those records in his hands.  

In 1987, Alan was a school teacher and an ambulance-chasing record collector who combed obituaries, estate sales, and classified ads looking for buried treasure.  Pure happenstance led to discovering the Baldwin record in the home of an “Oh Lord”-dropping old woman named Mrs. Walker (Anna Maria Horsford of TV’s Amen).  Competition in wooing Mrs. Walker’s charity to get the record comes in the form of Paul (Ronald L. Conner), a record store owner rival who questions Alan’s musical soul as a collector that steals the intellectual property of black people.

Chasing the Blues is a dark comedy through and through.  Director Scott Smith and his co-writer Kevin Guifoile crafted an engaging yarn of hijinks and hilarity.  Their narrative might feel like something out of a Coen brothers rough draft, but this film sides with a far less gonzo approach that suits its shrewder stature.  Like the musical genre at its core, patient storytelling is at the forefront.  Could it use a stiffer punch or two?  Maybe, but then it wouldn’t be the blue and not everything has to be shock cinema.  Waiting for the payoff in this tidy 77-minute film is an easy and worthwhile short hike to climb.

LESSON #1: HOW BADLY DO YOU WANT SOMETHING-- Chasing the Blues is all about the lengths two silly men will go to get their hands on the movie’s MacGuffin vinyl record.  Driven by pure competitive envy, Alan and Paul want to think they have thresholds but show otherwise.  Fill in the blank for your Holy Grail item you covet and ask yourself what you’ll do to attain it.  Are your limits higher or lower than these two?

LESSON #2: IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE PURSUIT-- As with any quest, even the selfishly petty ones like this dueling swindle, the energy lies in the chase, not the eventual victory.  The obsessive thirst is what keeps Alan and Paul going where you wonder what satisfaction would even be possible in coming into the possession of the Baldwin record.  Circling back to Lesson #1, someone has to ask themselves if all of that frenzy was worth it.

LESSON #3: WE NEED MORE BLUES MUSIC IN THE MAINSTREAM-- It is very easy to walk away from Chasing the Blues bitten by the bug to listen to some smooth and ever-giving blues.  The older the better.  The deeper the better.  Like its cousin jazz, blues is a superior musical genre to the crap that gets labeled R&B and pop today.  Go listen to something with a story, some real emotion, and not the disconnected and weak rhymes of the present.

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