Down at the Hey Hey

Kansas City is less a movie about a ransom than an American zeitgeist. Depression era throes bring characters together during deeply segregated times, intertwined by decisions and fate. There’s a nostalgic ambiance to Kansas City, much as a reluctant admittance to inequality, exploitation, and fear.

Jazz creates the score. There’s no other music; it’s pure, lively, and enthusiastic as the city’s seedier side stretches across the camera’s frame. Those saxophones and pianos exhibit calm, this while characters exist in panic. Their stability is in question while the culture breathes.

Around star Jennifer Jason Leigh’s colorful (even caricature-like) performance, Kansas City feeds a hearty, noir-esque soul. Cigarette smoke perpetually billows in the frame, the jazz club adding appropriate visual weight. There, Leigh’s lover sits, awaiting his fate, this while Leigh kidnaps a politically connected man’s wife.

It’s simple, if told through an exotic methodology. Characters fall out of Kansas City much as they fall into it. As if in a rush to capture the period whole, hard cuts put people and places on a swivel, spinning into different threads, Leigh Kansas City’s heart.

Released in 1996, nothing in Kansas City feels ‘90s

Released in 1996, nothing in Kansas City feels ‘90s. It doesn’t have that energy, the violence, or the aggression. Director Robert Altman grew up during this period – and in this city – giving Kansas City a decadent, lush atmosphere. It’s purposefully slow, even methodical. In that, Kansas City is even fearless, rejecting the ‘90s momentum and splash.

Argue whether Kansas City joins its pieces into something entertaining; that’s too debatable. Yet, Altman’s intent isn’t inherently the pedestrian kidnapping/ransom, rather how these small events fade into history. Here, an election is simmering in the background, mob wars flare, and gamblers lose their way. In this place, at this time, two divergent women find themselves trapped, doing anything to stabilize their lives.

Leigh’s victim is played by Miranda Richardson, the part keeping her in a drug-induced stupor. It’s an underplayed role, notably for contrast against Leigh’s spunk, if also devilish. Richardson deftly plans her escape, and plots for Leigh to implicitly trust her. Kansas City becomes about trust – Leigh trusts a politician to do right, the voting system assumes trust put those men in power, and a low-level thug trusts a local mobster. Rules don’t apply though; it’s too busy and desperate a time. Everyone is looking for an out. The moral sparseness is suffocating.

Kansas City Blu-ray screen shot


Arrow debuts Kansas City to Blu-ray in nominal form. Hearty grain sticks out, struggling for consistency through the encode. Don’t put all blame on compression though. This disc has other issues.

At the source, an outdated master carries over DVD-era bad habits. Small sharpening impacts grain structure enough to cause problems, including stray halos. Smearing indicates processing, although no other signs of filtering show. The end result is unnatural though, lessening potential detail. Texture wants to escape, yet this older master won’t allow it.

Color stands firm, at least. Nice primaries jump from a gloomy aesthetic, allowing for the era’s style to show. This is true even in the darkened Hey Hey Club, where lights sit low and shadows dominate. Luckily, black levels give their support, hard and careful as to not diminish depth. Contrast reaches pleasing peaks too, overcoming the overcast gray.


Stereo and 5.1 offerings both come in DTS-HD; stick with the 5.1. While not much, the latter pushes thunder and rain away from the center. This helps the jazz too. Stereos spread the music, giving the club life.

Overall mixing lacks punch however. Bass fails when invigorating the soundtrack, losing the beat while patrons bob their heads. Kansas City isn’t overly active or loud by design, yet the mix doesn’t bring any energy to this presentation. Losing the music (even if fidelity is fine) is criminal.


Robert Altman preserved his thoughts on a commentary track prior to his death. That’s followed by a newly filmed appreciation from critic Geoff Andrew, running 25-minutes. Better though is an essay by French critic Luc Lagier (ported from a 2007 DVD) who provides a unique reading into themes and style. EPK materials, trailers, and an image gallery come in for a finale.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Kansas City
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More a film of atmosphere and nostalgia, Robert Altman’s Kansas City looks behind the depression to those looking to get ahead.

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