Film Review: Chasing the Blues

Collecting mania drives this uneven comedy about two music completists vying to wrest an incredibly rare blues record away from a sweet elderly lady.
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Chasing the Blues opens in the present day, with former high-school teacher Alan Thomas (Grant Rosenmeyer), recently released from prison, on a long-distance bus en route to the middle of nowhere, Illinois, where a storage space is about to be liquidated. It’s a long trip, and he strikes up a conversation with a pretty singer/musician named Vanessa (Chelsea Tavares).

The reason for Alan’s trip is complicated and begins in 1987, he tells Vanessa, when he got wind of a rare blues record that had come into the possession of elderly, Chicago-based Mrs. Walker (Anna Maria Horsford): She inherited an astonishing collection of old blues recordings from her late husband. The record Alan wants so desperately is obscure bluesman Jimmy Kane Baldwin’s recording of “Death, Where is Thy Sting?” and it comes with an appropriately grim legend. The story goes that the recording includes the screams of Baldwin’s girlfriend Betty Sharper, whom he murdered, screams capable of driving a man insane. It’s so rare—supposedly only four copies were pressed and they were never distributed—that the consensus among serious collectors and historians is that it doesn’t exist at all and probably never did. And if it did, it would be mightily cursed, especially since everyone involved with the session was dead within a week…which is why it’s the holy grail of blues hounds.

Unfortunately, vintage record-store owner Paul Bettis (Ronald L. Conner) has also heard about Mrs. Walker—he and Alan have a long history as relatively friendly rivals, “relatively” definitely being the key word. They both want that record so badly they can taste it and converge on the widow’s home in the midst of a hellish heat wave. Mrs. Walker is a lovely hostess, offering her guests endless glasses of sweet iced tea and regaling them with stories. And she does have an impressive collection of old vinyl records, including –yes—“Death, Where is Thy Sting.” So which of the uber-fans is going to get it, and how?

It’s a credit to the screenplay by Scott Smith and Kevin Guilfoile—Smith also directed—that Alan and Paul don’t both come off as utterly loathsome vultures, looking to take advantage of a lovely, lonely old lady for no better reason than that they’re both driven by the same obsession: to own the fabled recording so the other can’t. Is that childish? Absolutely. Selfish? For sure…but that’s collecting at its most obsessive.

And so the battle of wits, wills and wiles begins, and without revealing the details—there are some genuinely surprising turns—the record is still up for grabs decades later, when all-around schmuck Lincoln Broome (Jon Lovitz) shows up hawking it to the highest bidder. 

There isn’t much else to say about the plot of Chasing the Blues, but the dialogue is sharp and sometimes quite funny and the performances are good; Lovitz’s brief appearances, which bookend the lengthy 1987 portion of the tale, are so oily you can easily image a slug trail in his wake, and while Steve Guttenberg’s “Diamond Dog” Dan—yet another player, who’s acquainted with both Alan and Paul—has even less screen time than Lovitz, a nickname like “Diamond Dog” goes a long way. The film’s pleasures are small ones, but they’re perfectly pitched and anyone who’s ever collected anything will empathize with the depth of Alan and Paul’s passion, if not their actions.