Sometimes when I am watching a really bad movie, I start to question how it even got made, leading me to imagine what might have been said at a pitch meeting to get a green light for such a car wreck. Normally, in a traumatic experience, one will wish him or herself to a happier place, so it tells you how bad a movie is that, by comparison, a meeting with Hollywood execs is preferable.
Such is the case with the jazz-age crime musical Dark Streets.
"You see, it's like Sin City meets Outkast's Idlewild, but Idlewild for white people. We'll talk about blues music and have some bluesy riffs running through the songs, but this will be with an almost completely white cast, headed by a guy like Ryan Gosling or the dude from Pushing Daisies. Or at least someone cheaper who looks a whole hell of a lot like them. To throw a bone to the legitimate blues community, we'll give a black guy the court jester role. You know, a narrator like Taye Diggs in Chicago, but he'll ham it up more and smoke a lot like he's in a rap video. We'll borrow a little of the plot from Chinatown, and the clothes will be crazy, almost like superhero costumes, because comic book movies are a big deal. Think Baz Luhrmann squaring off with Guy Ritchie in a back alley, but way more poncey."
Okay, granted, that's not a very serious attempt at what it must have been like, but if the people involved in this--director Rachel Samuels (The Suicide Club), first-time screenwriter Wallace King, or producer Glenn M. Stewart, who allegedly wrote a play this was based on--took it any more seriously themselves, then they have to be three of the most delusional people on the planet. In a year when I suffered through crap like The Women, to call Dark Streets the worst time I had at the movies in the last twelve months is really saying something.
For those who may be curious, the plot involves milquetoast rich boy Chaz (Gabriel Mann, 80 Minutes) running his frou-frou jazz club into the ground, sleeping most of the day away in an alcoholic haze, and crying over the money his recently deceased father decided not to leave him. Daddy was the head of a power company, and his death has occurred in the midst of troubling city-wide blackouts--a fact that should give anyone pause, but Chaz fails to see the connection until it is pointed out to him. But then, Chaz fails to see a lot of things, and his memory isn't so good. The latter part is pretty convenient for the writers, because they hinge half of their plot twists on Chaz remembering things he had previously forgotten when it best suits the story. "Oh, that's right, Daddy had a best friend who I totally hadn't thought about until I saw this picture of him." "The cabin in the woods? I forgot we had a cabin in the woods. I'll hide there and find new clues!" "Logic and plot construction? Was I supposed to bring some?"
Which might be fine if Gabriel Mann wasn't totally inept as an actor. You can have him grow a moustache and put a flask in his hand, but were I the one holding the liquor bottle, he wouldn't be able to convince me he was of legal drinking age with a valid driver's license, birth certificate, and the doctor who delivered him from his mother's womb standing by his side. All of the girls at the club swoon over the rich pretty boy, including the brassy Crystal (Bijou Phillips, Choke), who has a history with Chaz, but also a history with cocaine, so at least she had an excuse. She is threatened by the new singer in Chaz's club, the blonde and angelic Madelaine (Izabella Miko, Coyote Ugly), who was pushed on Chaz by a snarling cop (Elias Koteas, Some Kind of Wonderful) who is dressed in a uniform that makes him look like he's just stepped through a Stargate. The cop's wardrobe is just one of many inexplicable things in Dark Streets. For instance, why does the narrator, Prince Royale (Toledo Diamond), act like he just stepped out of a Fishbone music video--mohawk, cane, flashy suit, and all? Or how does one night away from the club allow it to decay so rapidly it suddenly looks like the morning after the wrap party for a Fellini movie?
These are questions I cannot answer, and I doubt any of the filmmakers can either, because I don't think they ever stopped to ask them. The music in the movie runs at a constant, either sung on stage by one of Chaz's performers or as part of the soundtrack, and I believe it's lathered on so thick in order to hopefully cover up the many plot holes. No doing. Dark Streets is as craggy and absorbent as a sponge, and no matter what Rachel Samuels throws on top of it, it all gets sucked into the boring morass. Hell, the movie doesn't even look good. All of the scenes are underlit, and Samuels and her director of photography, Sharone Meir (Mean Creek), smear the lens with Vaseline so that the image is never fully in focus, the edges of the frame blurred and distorted. I am sure this is meant to represent Chaz's confused state of mind and all the unknowns in the plot, but that's kind of like spitting into a rainstorm to make it more wet.
I suppose there are some people who might make a case for Dark Streets being so bad, it's almost good. It certainly has enough quotable lines, my personal favorite being Bijou Phillips shouting "But not special enough to keep a doctor from sticking a coat hanger in me!" She pops out with that bon mot during a fight with Chaz, and boy, does it shut him up. (Not a spoiler, it's a detail that emerges unprompted and is never mentioned again, neither moving the plot nor really changing anything at all, just like most of the story points in Dark Streets.) I personally think, however, that giving it such a distinction would be too kind to something that deserves no such kindness. When it comes to Dark Streets, we have to let bad just be bad.
Hell, not even an unexpected, somewhat baffling dedication to the people of New Orleans that appears at the end of the film is enough to make me say, "Well, at least they had noble intentions." Instead, I cried out loud, "Haven't those people suffered enough?" I certainly felt like I had.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.