By Richard Ades
La La Land was pelted with jokes galore for its alleged depiction of a white man who wanted to “save” jazz. Personally, I thought the attacks were unfair. The way I saw it, Ryan Gosling’s character was simply a white musician who idolized and was inspired by black jazz icons.
So why do I have such an uncomfortable feeling watching Flock of Four, the story of a white high school student who idolizes and is inspired by a black jazz icon? Maybe because the modest little film tries to tackle the issues of race and cultural appropriation head on, and it does it in a way that’s sometimes awkwardly self-conscious and embarrassingly naïve.
Directed and co-written by Gregory Caruso, Flock of Four partially makes up for this shortcoming by taking us on a pleasant journey through a pivotal era in Southern California’s musical history.
Joe Grover (Braeden Lemasters) is a Pasadena teen who learned jazz piano from his late father and now leads three classmates in a quartet that specializes in the genre even though their contemporaries prefer rock ’n’ roll. One night in 1959, Joe learns that Pope Dixon (Reg E. Cathey), a jazz veteran his father worshipped, is playing at a club on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.
Joe has never been to Central Avenue, a fading jazz mecca in a scruffy black neighborhood, and he’s nervous about how safe or welcome he would be there. Still, he’s more afraid that this could be his last chance to hear the aging musician. Setting aside his fears—and dodging his protective older brother, Sam (Shane Harper)—he herds his bandmates into a cab and sets out for L.A.
This begins a long night of making and discussing music, meeting new friends and losing old friends, all while searching for a musician who always seems to be just out of reach.
After arriving at the club only to learn that Dixon has already left, Joe encounters Ava Moore (Coco James), a black singer with a friendly smile and a decidedly unfriendly brother, Clifford (Nadji Jeter). Following her gorgeous rendition of “Misty,” Joe and bass player Bud (Isaac Jay) introduce themselves and quickly learn that Clifford has little use for either them or for Dixon, whose upbeat music he equates with the long-ago era of demeaning minstrel shows.
More race-related discussions follow, culminating in a moment when Joe basically asks if someone like him, a white kid from Pasadena, has had enough pain in his life to play jazz. It seems like an odd question, considering how devoted he is to the genre he inherited from his dad. At any rate, the answer he receives is both reassuring and disappointing.
Beyond its awkward moments, Flock of Four is a satisfying tribute to the smoky jazz clubs that once graced the entertainment scene in L.A. and across the country. It may not be dramatically powerful, but it’s likably nostalgic and historically interesting. And, as a bonus, the music is great.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Flock of Four (unrated) opens Friday (April 13) at AMC Easton Town Center 30 in Columbus.