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Lush Life

The free-floating world of the N.Y. session musician forms a richly textured background to Michael Elias' directorial bow, "Lush Life," a moving celebration of friendship and the joy of musicmaking.

The free-floating world of the N.Y. session musician forms a richly textured background to Michael Elias’ directorial bow, “Lush Life,” a moving celebration of friendship and the joy of musicmaking. Lit up by sympathetic ensemble playing from leads Jeff Goldblum, Forest Whitaker and Kathy Baker, this Showtime presentation will find a ready niche with jazz and music lovers, and with good reviews and careful handling could cross over from its cable origins to limited theatrical biz among discerning international audiences.

World premiered at the London Film Festival, pic is skedded for an April Showtime airdate, though it really deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Goldblum and Whitaker play, respectively, a tenor saxophonist and trumpeter, top sidemen and session players in the business, though not stars in their own right. Goldblum is married to Baker, a singer-turned-teacher who wants to leave Manhattan behind.

Goldblum is still married to his job, however — a world of casual dope-smoking, musical camaraderie and one-night stands (musical and carnal). Relations with Baker are loving but under strain: She starts to suspect him of extramarital affairs and can’t break his spiritual bond to the hip 1960s. Worse, he’s also starting to take his music less than seriously.

When Whitaker, who’s been getting headaches from his high notes, finds he has a malignant brain tumor and only weeks to live, the trio’s tight relationship is put to the test. Whitaker agrees to a final party-cum-jazz session, which all of Gotham’s best session musicians will attend, on condition that no one is told of his problem and that Goldblum sharpen up his musical act.

TV writer/producer Elias, who wrote the script eight years ago, knows his jazz and its world. A patchwork of short scenes separated by musical sessions, pic has an easy, loose structure that nicely mirrors the characters’ “lush life, ” as per the title of the Billy Strayhorn number.

Film’s major strength lies in conveying the real joy of making music together , of wordless communication. In that respect, it’s on a par (though in a different century and beat) with the French Gerard Depardieu starrer “Tous les Matins du monde.”

Both Goldblum (doubled by the late, great Bob Cooper) and Whitaker (by Chuck Findley) convincingly rep their parts, especially the latter, with the camera carefully disguising their finger movements.

In a difficult middle role, Baker comes up aces, and gets her own chance to shine in a nightclub scene where she sings (dubbed by Sue Raney) one last time. There’s a peachy bit by Lois Chiles as a sexy Manhattanite who’s hot for both musicians. Other roles are notable, especially Zack Norman as a hardhearted fixer.

Though the film could benefit from some trims in the second half — especially the interior monologuing by Whitaker as his illness starts to impinge (and a silly, out-of-style fantasy sequence) — the relationships are sufficiently strongly drawn to bypass disease-of-the-week cliches.

Aside from exteriors, most of the pic was in fact shot in L.A., with West Coast players in many of the background roles. Film still has a convincing New York feel and looks handsome despite its rapid 20-plus-day shoot and $ 4 million budget.

Tech credits are fine down the line, with Lennie Niehaus contribbing powerful musical arrangements and Nancy Schrieber’s camera alert and textured. Bill Yahraus’ editing, especially of the musical montages, is on the money. Sole glitch is some indistinct, mumbled dialogue passages between Goldblum and Whitaker, which need to be clearer.

Lush Life

  • Production: A Showtime presentation of a Chanticleer Films production. (International sles: Chanticleer Films, L.A.) Produced by Thom Colwell. Executive producers, Jana Sue Memel, Jonathan Sanger. Co-producer, Ron Colby. Directed, written by Michael Elias.
  • Crew: Camera (Agfacolor; Foto-Kem prints), Nancy Schrieber; editor, Bill Yahraus; music/music director, Lennie Niehaus; production design, John Jay Moore; costume design, Mary Kay Stolz; sound (Dolby), Peter V. Meiselmann; assistant director, Michelangelo Csaba Boller; casting, Leslee Dennis. Reviewed at London Film Festival, Nov. 18, 1993. Running time: 104 min.
  • With: Al Gorky - Jeff Goldblum Buddy Chester - Forest Whitaker Janis Oliver - Kathy Baker Sarah - Tracey Needham Lucy - Lois Chiles Beanstrom - Zack Norman Jack - Don Cheadle Lester - Alex Desert
  • Music By: