Whether it’s the warm and lush tones of cinematographer’s Gus Bendinelli or the rendering of 1959 South Central Los Angeles, Flock of Four oozes nostalgia for a time gone by from the onset. Being “in a sentimental mood,” especially if you’re dealing with a jazz infused narrative, is just fine, but Flock of Four has other notes to play before the final act’s over.
Joey (Braeden Lemasters, doing solid work as the lead) is a talented pianist whose passion for jazz stems from his father, a military vet who perished in the Korean War. Dad’s favorite musician was Pope Dixon (Reg E. Cathey), a jazz great who Joey learns is playing for one night only in Central Avenue. Joey is part of a fledgling jazz outfit with his closest friends Louie (Dylan Riley Snyder), Archie (Uriah Shelton), and Bud (Isaac Jay), and though Louie wants to spend the evening at a local Pasadena burger shack to put the moves on a recently single lady, the foursome eventually head to South Central, much to the chagrin of Joey’s older brother Sam (Shane Harper).
The idea of four seemingly sheltered white kids from Pasadena traveling to a predominantly black neighborhood may seem anachronistic to what many deem as a diversified, Los Angeles climate, but the City of Angels is a series of regions and sections where, for many denizens, the twain shall never meet. One can live in Pasadena, South Central Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, or even Downtown Los Angeles without even getting to know their neighbor, so traveling twenty plus minutes to another city and attempting to ingrain yourself into another world is, even to this day, a bit of a venture for many LA residents (myself included).
That subtle point is just one of the many layers of Flock of Four, but the wonderful “easter egg” within the story lies in one of the film’s standout moments. Attempting to find Pope Dixon, the kids head to the club where the musician is scheduled to play, only to find that his set is over. The jazz that’s playing in the joint is still wonderful to hear, and eventually bass player Bud and Joey are on stage to play the standout Charles Mingus composition “Better Git It In Your Soul” in front of an engaged audience. Though Clifford (Nadji Jeter) is not too welcoming of the foursome, his sister (and singer) Ava (Coco Jones) is more welcoming, and a possible connection between her and Bud is in the offing.
As Joey and his buddies, along with Clifford and Ava, spend the evening looking for Pope, each have their own reactions to Joey’s determined quest, ultimately leading to a fractious outcome. Sam his girlfriend (Gatlin Kate James) and slickster buddy Tony (Connor Paolo) are just a few steps behind the crew, as Sam wants his brother safe and sound in Pasadena, no matter what the cost.
Though the film’s focus is Pope Dixon, director Gregory Caruso may want viewers to take a deeper dive into Charles Mingus and, of course Central Avenue. Mingus could have gone the easy route and remained a venerated bassist, but he was a musician who loved to break boundaries that would push him (and his fellow musicians) to the artistic limit. “Better Git It In Your Soul” is one of Mingus’ trademark songs, taken from his seminal 1959 album Mingus Ah Um, and the energetic track’s pointed moniker can is a reminder on how to approach jazz (as well as life).
The inevitable meeting between Joey and Pope, given the nostalgic flavors of the film, could have been a syrupy bonding moment that would play to the crowd, but Caruso has other things on his mind. Their conversation delivers a cutting truth that challenges us to either live by the facts or simply go our own way. Joey may have come to Central Avenue to find echoes of his father, but people who suffer devastating losses hopefully understand that our loved ones are always by our side.
Maybe jazz is best appreciated in Europe or Asia, and the idea of its sounds infusing Central Avenue’s night air is best left for ghosts and memories. These things may ring true, but as Flock of Four pointedly suggests, don’t be surprised if you’re ready to play an entirely different tune.
Rating: 4 out of 5 *****
Flock of Four opens in select theaters today via Abramorama.
Take a listen to this month’s episode of CinemAddicts, a show I co-host with Anderson Cowan, below: