By Michael Katz
Jazz has had a rich history in the film business, but lately the opportunities for jazz influenced film scores have not been abundant. Composers leap at the chance to do scores that feature music they love when the opportunity arises; often these opportunities come in independent film, as is the case of Handsome Harry, directed by Bette Gordon from a script by Nicholas Proferes.
Harry Sweeney is an electrician, divorced and closing out a business in upstate New York, a sometime member of an a cappella group, estranged from his only son. Portrayed in cheerfully gruff fashion by Jamey Sheridan, Sweeney’s life of muted regret is interrupted by a phone call from an old Navy buddy, Kelly, terminally ill in a Philly hospital. Kelly reminds Harry of a beating they and friends from their unit administered to a man named Kagan thirty years ago. A budding jazz pianist, Kagan apparently made a pass at one of the men in the shower, resulting in a simmering rage that played out in the drunken attack and beating at a jazz club. Someone crushed Kagan’s right hand, leaving it permanently deformed. No one seems to remember who did it; Kelly, played by Steve Buscemi, thinks it may have been him and he will go to Hell for it without forgiveness from Kagan.
Thus begins a road trip for Harry as he visits Kelly just in time to see him die. Kelly’s daughter has found the locations of their buddies from the Internet, and Harry sets off, ostensibly to find some posthumous forgiveness for Kelly, but really to square up his own feelings that have been repressed over the years. The layers of the mystery are peeled off bit by bit, both through Harry’s encounters with men he hasn’t seen in three decades, and flashbacks to their relationship with Kagan, filled in after each encounter.
Musically, the elements of jazz in the score by Anton Sanko, with jazz cues and piercingly poignant trumpet solos by Jumaane Smith, are used mainly to feather the transitions from present to past. The cues are used beautifully, if sparsely. It is only at the end of the film, when Harry and Kagan are reunited, that we hear more of Jumaane Smith and his quartet, and most of that is over the closing credits.
The film itself features some fine cameo roles by a group of well known actors as Harry’s old Navy pals, including John Savage as a homophobic real estate mogul with an alienated wife, Mariann Mayberry, herself an a capella singer, who was in a competition with Harry (what a small world). Their brief but heated affair is a foreshadowing to the film’s later revelations. Aidan Quinn plays a college professor who has conveniently denied his military history to his students. Titus Welliver has found Jesus, not far from a golf course.
All the men have tried to bury the incident with Dave Kagan, but it is Harry, as we find out, who has suppressed the most. Director Bette Gordon handles the relationship between Kagan and Harry with depth and sensitivity. Campbell Scott, as Kagan, contributes a layered portrayal in the film’s final two scenes, demonstrating the elusiveness of both love and forgiveness.
For jazz afficionados, it is nice to hear the nuanced score, but you will have to wait for the closing credits to really hear the best of the Jumaane Smith quartet.
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