Indie drama set in Atlanta's underground jazz scene boasts an underexploited milieu and some exciting music. But in storytelling terms, pic plays like a free-jazz set that never quite gains momentum or shape. Retooling is needed if pic is to avoid an indifferent direct-to-vid fate.

An indie drama set in Atlanta’s underground jazz scene, “Brass Tacks” boasts an underexploited milieu and some exciting music. But in storytelling terms, pic plays like a free-jazz set that never quite gains momentum or shape. There’s precious little going on here in terms of plot or character development, and first-time feature helmer Gavin Dougan hasn’t come up with the kind of vivid impressionistic style or rich atmosphere that would have rendered those elements less conspicuously absent. Retooling is needed if pic is to avoid an indifferent direct-to-vid fate.

Title cards inform that all music performed on-screen was played live for the camera, which means most of the principal thesps here are accomplished (if not particularly well-known) musicians. Rob Mallard plays Dominick, leader of an instrumental six-piece band called the Positive Propaganda. Band impresses more serious listeners but lacks the commercial appeal of outfits willing to toss in hip-hop, rock, pop — or even just vocals. To keep afloat financially, Dominick and a couple bandmates have day jobs doing home improvement gigs at a small tiling company.

They’d love to be full-time musicians, but as the stereotypically obnoxious Los Angeles record biz shill tells Dominick, “There’s no market for jazz.” Offering some hope, on the other hand, is a fellow musician who belongs to the genre-bending (real-life) B-Side Players ensemble, and who thinks he might be able to hook the struggling outfit up with a recording deal that won’t require they sell their soul, or sell out their style.

There’s much argument whether to stay “pure” vs. compromising to get popular, but these discussions could be better articulated, since that issue seems to be closest thing pic’s got to a central conflict. Dialogue at times has an improvised feel, which is OK; what’s not OK is that script (credited to Dougan) seldom seems to be heading anywhere — and on rare occasions when it does, that potential path is soon abandoned.

“Brass Tacks” has barely begun before it’s reprising scenes in flashback montages, suggesting there wasn’t enough story devised (or maybe even footage shot) to properly fill runtime.

There are some mildly colorful stand-alone incidents (Dominick Dom buys a vintage tenor sax reputedly once played by Coltrane, his goofy guitarist Wes Daniel runs down the thugs who’d just mugged him), but the only relationship that actually goes anywhere is Dominick’s flirtation with at-first-reluctant Tamara (Elsa Davis). A barkeep, she once pursued music herself but is now focused on the more realistic path of med school. There’s convincing passion between duo when they finally get physical.

Elsewhere, Mallard makes for a very low-key, sometimes stilted lead. Other perfs are agreeable enough, but character depth is lacking. Place-sense that’s vivid in opening and closing Atlanta street scenes fails to infuse pic’s bulk.

Tech/design aspects are generally smooth, with considerable care going into the sound mix. Much of the music heard here might lure new fans to New Jazz, though the question of whether this underdeveloped — although long-in-making (one dialogue bit suggests dot-com boom is still going on) — pic can get them into theaters in the first place is another matter.

Brass Tacks

Production

A Brass Tacks production. Produced by Gavin Dougan, Chapin Wilson. Executive producers, Dougan, Wilson. Directed, written by Gavin Dougan.

Crew

Camera (color), Ed Myers; editors, Jeff Cooper, Todd Sali; music, Railroad Earth; production designer, Devaughn Hughson; sound, Mark Berger; assistant director, Hughson; casting, Dougan. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 16, 2004. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Rob Mallard, Eisa Davis, Kebbi Williams, Patrick Byrne, Quentin Baxter, Christopher Burt, Wes Daniel, Meghan Marx.
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