A sprawling look at New York in the early 1900s, with an eventual focus on African-American piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins Jr.), who arrives on the doorstep of a white couple (rigid James Olson and the warm-hearted Mary Steenburgen) to reconcile with his beloved Sarah (Debbie Allen), whom the couple have taken in, along with her baby. Apparently Coalhouse abandoned them, but he claims he did so because he needed to go away and make money to support them. Unfortunately the reunion is to be short-lived due to tragedy. Coalhouse is already incensed that some racist white firemen (led by Kenneth McMillan) have vandalised his car and there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it, so that this latest tragedy sends him right over the edge and he takes drastic measures to demand compensation for the vandalising of his car or else! This involves Coalhouse and his newly formed band of brothers holing themselves up in a local library building and claim to have rigged the place with explosives. This brings him to the attention of the NY Police Commissioner (James Cagney!). Meanwhile, we are treated to a bunch of side characters and stories such as an ambitious chorus girl (Elizabeth McGovern) and an immigrant early filmmaker (Mandy Patinkin). Brad Dourif plays Steenburgen’s painfully shy younger brother, who pines for McGovern and ends up donning blackface (mostly to disguise himself, mind you) to join Coalhouse’s gang. Jeff Daniels is the half-hearted cop who really doesn’t want to help Coalhouse out, Donald O’Connor plays a choreographer, Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison are among Coalhouse’s gang, Moses Gunn plays a respected black elder called in to calm Coalhouse and his men down, and Robert Joy appears early as McGovern’s murderous rich husband. That’s a young-ish Fran Drescher screaming like a banshee in a foreign tongue to Patinkin at one point.
There’s some worthy and interesting stuff in this 1981 film from Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Hair”, “Amadeus”) and screenwriter Michael Weller (“Hair”, “Lost Angels”), but it does not add up to an entirely worthy film. The parts are good enough to make it worth watching, sure, but they aren’t enough to make it a great film. Most people seem to agree that the film, an adaptation of the much-loved E.L. Doctorow (“Welcome to Hard Times”, “Billy Bathgate”) novel is unfocussed. That’s a massive understatement. However, as someone who hasn’t read the novel, I have to disagree with most in saying that the parts I enjoyed most were those that focussed mostly on the plight of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (the late Howard Rollins Jr., who was Oscar-nominated for the part) For me, the rest of the film was extraneous, unfocussed and uneven. I just didn’t think a lot of the supporting characters were very necessary or helpful to the success of the picture overall. It is almost exclusively because of Coalhouse’s narrative that the film (narrowly) gets an above par rating from me.
Yes, Mary Steenburgen and more briefly Robert Joy (doing his best Dan Duryea) are well-cast, and yes an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern gives a good performance (possibly her best-ever) and gets good and naked at times, which is lovely. I also though veteran character actor Kenneth McMillan came close to stealing the entire film in a choice, bullying racist part. You’ll remember him for sure. Mandy Patinkin was also fine, if yet Inigo Montoya once again has a rather impenetrable accent. Meanwhile, Moses Gunn steals his big scene, one of the best in the film. In fact, he’s the one person who does walk off with the film. An amazing talent of quiet power and dignity. But all of these scenes with other characters felt like the film was undecided between being a slice-of-life period drama and a racial tension-thriller, and because the latter managed to focus almost exclusively on one main character and allowed me to gravitate towards them, I felt the Coalhouse stuff was more resonant. Contrived and slightly overdone, sure, but still the most memorable thing. It could’ve resonated even more without the other stuff, which breaks the tension attempting to be built up in the Coalhouse scenes. It takes forever to really get going with the Coalhouse story. I also have to say that the performance by James Olson (Yes, Arnold’s commanding officer in the underrated “Commando”) is too flat and colourless for such an important role, and a bit underwhelming. As for Jimmy Cagney, his farewell performance is good but it’s not the kind of film you’ll want to watch just to see him. He’s barely got a glorified cameo (and is clearly reading cue cards, I might add. It’s not even subtle). Still, it’s Jimmy Fucking Cagney, and I love the fact that he basically plays the most powerful man in New York.
If this were more focussed and plot-driven rather than attempting to cover way too much ground, this could’ve been a winner. As is it’s an interesting and fairly entertaining film with some good performances, fine moments, and a racial tension story begging to be fleshed out. Still worth a look (and it doesn’t deserve to have been so forgotten about in the years since as it has been), just not a masterpiece and far too sprawling and unfocussed. Fun to play spot the star, though, including Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson, and the inimitable Jimmy Cagney in both his return and farewell film performance. Excellent music score by Randy Newman (“Toy Story”, “Three Amigos!”), easily his best work to date.