The legendary jazz music scene of Los Angeles’ Central Avenue during the 1930s and ’40s is paid fond tribute by director Marc Lazard’s “Stanley’s Gig.” It’s affable and well-cast yet otherwise a forgettable feature debut. Premise concerning a gifted but troubled eccentric helping an embittered elderly chanteuse come to terms with her past is part “The Gig,” part “Driving Miss Daisy” and all unremitting schmaltz. Pic is short on originality and substance, but long on charm, which helps to excuse some of its more gratuitously saccharine moments. But appeal of this telepic in feature clothing looks strictly limited to jazz aficionados drawn in by pic’s locales and standards-heavy soundtrack.
Stanley Myer (William Sanderson) is a charismatic ne’er-do-well with no discernible source of income, whose sole passion is the ukulele, an instrument whose obscurity fits Stanley’s quaint demeanor to a T. Stanley fantasizes about playing his uke on a Hawaiian cruise ship, and when his friend Leila (Faye Dunaway) gets Stanley an audition before two cruise magnates, pic breaks into a splashy, Hawaiian-themed production number, scored with one of the film’s many paeans (some original, some vintage) to the joys of ukulele music and performed with uninhibited gusto by Sanderson. Musical scene is the comic highlight of the film, and if “Stanley’s Gig” has one overriding asset, it’s Sanderson’s richly textured characterization of a marginalized daydreamer whose reveries seem grandiose to no one but himself.
Desperate for cash, Stanley takes a job as a musically inclined recreational therapist at a nursing home. He soon becomes a big hit with the residents, with the exception of Elanor Whitney (Marla Gibbs), a one-time jazz great who lives a life of self-imposed isolation. Predictably, Stanley ignores the advice of the home’s administrator (Steven Tobolowsky) and attempts to use his music as a way of ingratiating himself with Elanor. And predictably, after giving him the cold shoulder sufficient times to show that she’s no pushover, Elanor softens. A cutesy friendship ensues.
In her day, Elanor used to pack a Central Avenue joint called Honey Brown’s, and the strongest moments in “Stanley’s Gig” are those of quiet historical introspection. Stanley and Elanor traverse the downtrodden vestiges of the Central Avenue that was, reminiscing not so much about bygone halcyon days as about the multigenerational erosion, often from within, of indigenous black culture in Los Angeles. Before long, though, the film’s mechanical wheels are turning in full force, as Stanley hatches plans for an Elanor Whitney comeback — a performance that will inevitably unearth the painful memories that led Elanor to quit singing in the first place.
Perfs are generally strong, with Gibbs bringing a resigned intensity to Elanor that suggests the enervation of the aging process. But pic’s tone is all over the map, and the actors are at the mercy of a script (co-written by Lazard and Gadi Dechter) that too often forces them to jump from one contrary emotional beat to the next with little motivation.
Final third is basically a performance film, concentrating on the rehearsals for Elanor’s return engagement at Honey Brown’s. To this end, pic makes use of numerous pleasing jazz standards, with a particular disposition toward Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams’ “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home.” Lazard, however, shoots these numbers — which cry out for the exuberance of Sanderson’s early ukulele routine — in a stagnant, unemotive way, and the “live” music has a tinny, studio sound. While the film is elsewhere well-crafted technically, its greatest liability, ironically, is its lack of rhythmic panache, a quality so crucial to a film that takes music (especially jazz) as a primary subject.