A fun and quirky little film with a wonderful hard-bop soundtrack
Giant Steps is a great independent Canadian film. Arvo Leak (played by the brilliant actor Michael Mahonen) is a young jazz-trumpet prodigy who fights conformity in his suburban home environment and finds salvation in the form of Slate Thompson (played by a sandpaper voiced and compelling Billy Dee Williams), a once great but declining jazz pianist who is searching for many of the same things that Arvo is also looking for. The interaction between these two actors is wonderful. There are moments of genuine emotion that even the biggest Hollywood budget couldn't buy. This film really hits home for all those who are stuck in the mire of contemporary culture and are searching out for something pure and honest, which can be found in what we know as modern jazz.
If you enjoy pop-philosophy, be-bop, great dialogue and compelling performances, this film is for you. I don't know Toronto well but I think it's a good indicator of what the city was like in the early 90's, back in the days when one could still smoke in a bar or a club. For Canadian politics buffs, if you look carefully in the scene where Arvo follows Slate outside the music shop you can see a poster of current New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton who presumably was running for Toronto City Council.
This really is a must see film for jazz buffs. Check out the tiny cameo by the legendary trumpeter Doc Cheatham, which is funny and moving all at the same time. Ranee Lee, the Canadian jazz singer, is also wonderful and brilliantly shows off her singing and acting chops.
Ted Dykstra, playing Graeme Gaines, is brilliant as an uncompromising but violent and ill-tempered jazz drummer. The writer and director Don McKeller also has a tiny cameo in this film, years before he hit it big. Nicu Branzea plays Arvo's father and is quite compelling as a bitter, alcoholic ex-musician who has been struck by the slings and arrows that life has thrown at him. But he and Arvo come to understand one another and the two actors achieve a wonderful synthesis. Robyn Stevan, as Arvo's friend Leslie, is funny, upbeat, and brings a down to earth sense to the film that stops it from becoming too pretentious.
I wish the soundtrack could be found for this film as some of the music really hits home. The great Canadian pianist Joe Sealey performed on some of the cuts. (Dig that version of Ornithology where Arvo is thrown in the deep end by Slate!) The music director, Eric Leeds, did an amazing job on this film.
This film is witty and moving, it has a lot of soul and a hell of a beat. It's what great film making and jazz should be all about.
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