Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Spoils Before Dying: Rock Banyon, Without Strings

Somehow the bloviating Eric Jonrosh manages to spoof something that never really existed: the epic jazz film. Of course there have been plenty of jazz films (mostly indie and arty), but even I’m not sure I would recognize riffs on Paris Blues, Mickey One, A Man Called Adam, and Sweet Love, Bitter. Still, there are enough swinging noir conventions in the Peter Gunn tradition for the scattershot satire to take aim at. Being a jazz musician is dangerous work, especially for a cat suspected of murder in the IFC miniseries, The Spoils Before Dying (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Rock Banyon is a Hard Bop piano player, who scrupulously resists the advice of his agent Alistair St. Barnaby-Bixby-Jones to record a “with strings” album, a surprisingly hip jazz reference. Of course, Banyon will have more pressing matters on his mind when the police threaten to fix him up for the murder of his former lover and on-again-off-again vocalist, Fresno Foxglove (a.k.a. “the Topanga Songbird”). She was shot down alongside Wardell, Banyon’s tenor-player sideman (a possible Wardell Gray reference). However, Wardell was found with an alto saxophone rather than his tenor, which is a rather promising jazz Macguffin.

Had Spoils been edited down to ninety-minute feature, it could have been a smart, tight jazz mystery send-up. Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of dead wood in the six twenty-one minute episodes, notably including the frequent product placement gags, which are really not appropriate to the era. Even more annoying are the framing sequences, starring Will Ferrell as Eric Jonrosh, the supposed author of the original bestselling novel and director of the long lost European film adaptation. Frankly, the most unforgivable crime in Spoils is the wince-inducing shtick Ferrell indulges in as he hammily portrays Jonrosh as part Orson Welles, part Norman Mailer, and part Harold Robbins—make that the worst parts. There is no question Spoils would be considerably more watchable without him.

On the plus side, Michael Kenneth Williams is all kinds of cool and hardnosed as Banyon. Kristen Wiig wilts beside him as Delores O’Dell, a tangentially involved vocalist who becomes Banyon’s love interest. In contrast, Marc Evan Jackson and Steve Tom get disproportionate laughs as the cops dogging Banyon. Michael Sheen also finds humor in the potentially tricky role of homosexual extortion victim Kenton Price (say, that’s not intended as a Stan Kenton reference, is it? Remember his band was sometimes denigrated for lacking “manly” swing).

Frustratingly, Ferrell also turns up late in the sixth episode with a cheap shot character assassination of J. Edgar Hoover. Yet, even more problematic is the in-jokey casting of Chin Han (so memorable as the villains in Marco Polo and Serangoon Road) as the Mexican mystery man, Salizar Vasquez DeLeon. Still, when Peter Coyote supplies the voice of Dizzy the Cat, Spoils definitely has something to hang its porkpie on.

There is no question Spoils is an uneven and unruly production, yet it is more amusing and smarter about jazz than you would likely suspect. That said, someone should have told the copywriters who generated the tagline, there is nothing resembling “free-form jazz” here. Regardless, Peter Gunn and Evan Horne fans should find it entertaining if they fast-forward through the Jonrosh bits. Recommended accordingly, The Spoils Before Dying is now available on regular DVD from Anchor Bay.