John Cassavetes was the blue-collard labourer of American arthouse. Like the atonal timbre of jazz that tested musical conventions, the director excelled when left to experiment. Frequently, his movies appear as dummy-runs rather than finished products. His style stemmed from spontaneity, mistakes and impulse. His self-funded directorial debut Shadows (1959) was a lofty forerunner of independent cinema in the West. By saving the modest salaries he made acting in other director’s films, Cassavetes had somehow breached himself from the suffocating constraints of Hollywood. Shadows was messy and barely received enough to reach critical acclaim.
Coupled with the snowballing popularity of classic lounge crooner Bobby Darin and a swelling budget (by Cassavetes’ standards), 1961 production Too Late Blues should have been the ideal, semi-mainstream ballooning to jazz-era experimentalism and ultimately Cassavetes’ career. The result was lukewarm. The film failed quite astoundingly at the box office. But it could be for this reason – this established booby – that Cassavetes’ creativity reached an almighty zenith with some of his finest directorial work to follow. Nonetheless, as time has lingered and the arthouse reformer’s legacy sweetened, Too Late Blues has sustained a palpable gradation of charm. Like Shadows, it’s the jazz that stars, as well as the boyish vigour and energy that scores through Darin’s turn as John ‘Ghost’ Wakefield.
Darin’s character parables the idealism and egoism of creative independence; something deeply resonant in Cassavetes, ‘the DIY director’. Set in the nocturnal underbelly of sleazy bars and bedrooms, Ghost plays the suffering pianist leader of a jazz ensemble. Much in artistic fashion, the group strive to ‘do it their way’ with Ghost at the helm. Following interest from a big-name producer and the flowering of his relationship with delicate singer Jess, (Stella Stevens), the story appears inherently positive; almost romantic. Yet, succeeding an astounding twenty-minute scene where Cassavetes exercises his flair and finesse as a writer, Ghost’s window of opportunity is sealed shut.
As a consequence, Ghost’s psychological entrapment is abused on the local lounge singer circuit where compromise and economic autocracy rein. It’s the perfect allegory to Cassavetes’ own career, which for a good portion of the 60s he spent drifting between acting gigs. Despite its slick and efficient techniques, Too Late Blues was the certification that Cassavetes failed to conform. The studio came with too many restrictions, too many conditions and too little individualism. It would be an experience that Cassavetes would learn from in future releases and one that would turn him into one of American cinema’s most introverted dignitaries.