Released the same year as Charles Burnett's recently revived Killer of Sheep (1977), Larry Clark's Passing Through is another rarely seen but potent underground L.A. neorealist treatise that plumbs similar themes of the exploitation and degradation of black culture and posits jazz music as a revolutionary call to arms. (Fittingly, Burnett served as one of the camera operators.) Directed by Clark — no, not the guy who did Bully — as part of his UCLA master's thesis, co-written by actor Ted Lange (yes, Isaac from The Love Boat), and featuring the music of Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the film begins as saxophonist Eddie Warmack (Sanford and Son's Nathaniel Taylor) is released from prison after “steppin' off time” for killing a white music-industry goon. While searching for his grandfather and spiritual mentor, “Papa” Harris (a remarkable performance by 87-year-old veteran character actor Clarence Muse), Warmack rallies his band (played by Tapscott and other members of the Arkestra) to start their own record company amid violent resistance from Hollywood music executives. Shot in washed-out primary colors — ghetto hues of brick-brown and pavement-gray occasionally injected with lurid reds — Passing Through is raw, gritty, surreal and, at times, terrifying. Desperation and cigarette smoke dominate the tense scenes with Warmack's band as they discuss how to survive and fight the monolithic music industry (referred to as “legitimized organized crime”) in a rehearsal space decorated with posters from China's Cultural Revolution. Warmack seems to say it all when tells them, “It's not just about the record industry, it's about re-examining this backwards system we're all caught up in. It's about America.” The jazz-drenched soundtrack includes music by Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Bennie Maupin, Jesse Sharps, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But it's the phosphorescent score by Tapscott and the Ark that burns in the memory — an impassioned catalog of mood swings, from Ellingtonian noir to moments of woeful beauty and seething fury. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Thurs., Feb. 28, 8 p.m. www.silentmovietheatre.com.)
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