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MOVIE REVIEW : DIALOGUE AND HARMONY SPARK GILROY’S ‘THE GIG’

Frank D. Gilroy’s “The Gig” (Friday at selected theaters) follows a quintet of full-time urban professionals--and part-time amateur jazzmen--who suddenly get a shot at a lifetime dream: playing an actual professional engagement before paying audiences.

Accepting the gig--a last-minute fill-in--means they’ll have to disrupt settled, conventional lives, jobs that include dentistry, real estate and used cars. But accept it they do; and with this dream of hitting the road come the joys of jazz and the attendant nightmares of shucking security and evading responsibility. (Responsibility, of course, comes back to smack them in the face.)

“Gig” is not an extraordinary film, but it’s a good one. Gilroy--the playwright of “The Subject Was Roses,” and the writer-director of three other films--shot it on a low budget and independently, but he gives us one priceless commodity: dialogue.

Remember dialogue? Remember those seemingly long-gone days when many movie characters spoke lines that made you laugh or think, or seemed plausibly human? Remember when the people in a movie actually sounded different from each other?

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Gilroy has a real talent for writing dialogue--in a low-pressure, deft, likable key--and that’s what gives “The Gig” its distinction. Even so, some audiences may undervalue it: They may find it too talky, since dialogue and the performances are primarily what advance the story. Gilroy is working here with limited resources, and he’s certainly no great visual stylist. But his dialogue and the acting by Wayne Rogers, Cleavon Little, Andrew Duncan, Jerry Matz, Daniel Nalbach and Warren Vache (a real, and fine, cornetist who doubles as the film’s music director) as the band, and Joe Silver as the impresario, make the movie shine.

What happens to the five (the sixth member of their Dixieland sextet, the bassist, has to beg off because of major surgery) is almost classically chastening. Two reluctant members have to be shamed or hornswoggled into going and, later, staying. The new bass player is a slightly scornful professional: a well-traveled no-nonsense black jazzman (Cleavon Little) who’s no Dixieland aficionado and buries his nose in Orwell’s essays. Their Catskills club employer (Silver) is a glad-handing schlockmeister who feeds them in the kitchen, boards them in a drafty cabin with outdoor plumbing and wants nothing but Guy Lombardo tempos.

The sixth man--the pro bassist--knows the score for itinerant musicians. The question is whether the others can take it: five guys who’ve been vicarious musicians and now are grabbing at an ephemeral chance--clutching at moonbeams, pipe dreams, their youth.

It’s a nice film: a dryly funny male bonding comedy that’s strong on character and atmosphere, keeps its head and has its moments of insight and warmth. You can quibble about the maneuvers at the story’s close, and you could certainly question the background that Gilroy has given Little as the bass player, Marshall Wilson: Wilson’s supposedly played with Charlie (Bird) Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. (Playing with the others is vaguely possible, if some how unlikely; but playing with The Bird--who died in the mid-'50s--would make the youngish-looking Wilson 50 or more.)

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But the movie has such innate sympathy and sharp ideas that the flaws don’t overly bother you. We need more character in American movies right now, and that’s exactly what “The Gig” (Times-rated: Mature) has to offer. That and tight harmony, hot licks and an engaging sextet who, when they get the chance, can cook up an ersatz Storyville storm.

‘THE GIG’ A Castle Hill Productions distribution of a McLaughlin, Piven, Vogel, Inc. presentation. Producer Norman Cohen. Director Frank D. Gilroy. Script Gilroy. Camera Jeri Sopanen. Editor Rick Shaine. With Wayne Rogers, Cleavon Little, Andrew Duncan, Jerry Matz, Daniel Nalbach, Warren Vache, Joe Silver, Jay Thomas.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (Adult situations.)

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