'Flock of Four': Film Review

A deeply earnest attempt to reconcile an old question of race and heritage.
4/13/2018

Gregory Caruso's feature debut follows four kids through 1959 South Central as they try to meet a jazz legend.

Every American generation has its own crop of white boys who, having fallen in love with jazz, look around them and ask, "Do I have any right to the sense of belonging I feel with this music?" Some turn this anxiety into self-righteous preservationism (see Ryan Gosling's character scolding black musicians about authenticity in La La Land); some discover the white musicians who earned black peers' praise (Bix Beiderbecke, Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, et al) and feel less threatened; some conclude, correctly, that any person who is moved by music is entitled to that enjoyment, and entitled to make it part of his life.

Gregory Caruso's fiction debut, Flock of Four, is most interesting as a representation of that angst, as sincere in its awe of midcentury black genius as any kid who ever donned an ill-advised pork pie hat out of love for Thelonious Monk. Less successful as a drama, the out-all-night period piece is overshadowed by many similar coming-of-age tales (the best of which are often made by artists with first-hand knowledge of the period they're depicting). But like its twenty-ish hero, it is well-meaning enough that some viewers will be forgiving.

Braeden Lemasters plays that kid, Joey, a talented amateur pianist whose dad introduced him to jazz before going off to fight (and die) in Korea. It's 1959 in Pasadena, and he's relaxing with his musician buddies (some good, some not) when he hears on the radio that the legendary Pope Dixon will be playing that night in Los Angeles. Judging from later bits of dialogue, Dixon may be a stand-in for Louis Armstrong, a genuine trailblazer whose willingness to entertain white-bread America eventually caused many to dismiss him. But Joey is consumed by the need to hear him play — "When he goes, jazz goes with him," he insists — so the four head down to Central Avenue despite knowing their parents would never let them venture into such a black neighborhood.

They show up at the club only to find that Dixon has already played. But they catch a set by the club owner's children, pianist Clifford (Nadji Jeter) and singer Ava (Coco Jones) — the latter of whom entrances Joey's bass-playing friend Bud (Isaac Jay). Their meeting offstage finds Caruso and co-writer Michael Nader trying embarrassingly hard to boil the essence of jazz down into a couple of moments of dialogue. Ava coos that "jazz is a thick smoke, a smooth ride...it's happiness and pain"; her brother, annoyed at the white carpetbaggers, demands, "You two are such big jazz fans, tell me one thing — how did it start?" His answer, slavery, is supposed to put them in their place, but Joey and Bud are so insistent on their love for the music that they wind up getting pulled onstage to prove their knowledge of Charlie Mingus' work. Then it's off to a second club, which is supposedly getting a surprise visit from Dixon.

There, they'll be caught up to by Joey's big brother Sam (Shane Harper) and his friends, who are convinced the kids aren't savvy enough for South Central. But it's the white visitors, of course, who wind up causing a ruckus — two ruckuses, in fact, which bring action to a halt in the manner of a stage play looking for a break between acts two and three.

Despite some contrivances in the ensuing action, the eventual meeting between Joey and Dixon (Reg E. Cathey) makes for the picture's most credible scene, with Cathey offering a mix of condescension and sympathy. Neither validating Joey's calling nor quite berating him, this weary old performer delivers a prognosis that speaks to innumerable bebop buffs since: "You was born in the wrong decade."

Production companies: The Patwood Company, Bristol Pictures
Distributor: Abramorama
Cast: Braeden Lemasters, Uriah Shelton, Isaac Jay, Dylan Riley Snyder, Reg E. Cathey, Shane Harper, Coco Jones, Nadji Jeter, Connor Paolo
Director: Gregory Caruso
Screenwriters: Gregory Caruso, Michael Nader
Producers: Gregory Caruso, Dustin Cook, William Day Frank
Director of photography: Gus Bendinelli
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designer: Tiffany White Stanton
Editor: Vic Brown
Composer: Tim Callobre
Casting directors: NatalieHart, Jason La Padura, Kendra Patterson

83 minutes