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Queen City Soul
by Geoff Kelly
Buffalo filmmaker Peter McGennis’s Queen City debuts this week at the Market Arcade, accompanied by a killer musical lineup at the Tralf
Imagine if the buy local movement, which encourages consumers to buy locally produced goods—locally brewed beer, locally grown produce, goods of all kinds made nearby and sold by locally owned businesses—were to expand to include cultural products, such as films. Imagine if local moviegoers decided that, in addition to, or even instead of, seeing whatever films national distributors placed in local cinemas, they would also seek out the work of local filmmakers who make movies that speak specifically to local audiences.
Imagine distinct film cultures that reflect regional characteristics, so that Cleveland, say, and Baton Rouge would each have its own scene, its own filmmakers telling local stories. And imagine that local audiences responded to those films the way they respond to the latest George Clooney vehicle or Silent Hill sequel.
Peter McGennis makes films as if he is determined to create such an environment. His latest film, Queen City, which he calls a musical tribute, is the second installment in a trilogy of movies about and produced entirely in Buffalo. And Queen City, even more so than its predecessor Buffalo Bushido, is made expressly for Buffalonians.
Sure, folks from Pittsburgh or Savannah could watch the movie, follow its plot (it’s a cop movie, basically, with many additional layers piled on), and enjoy its sendup of 1970s genre films. And anyone can appreciate the musical talent that McGennis miraculously persuaded to take part in his production: Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings; blues pianist Allen Toussaint; singer/songwriter Susan Tedeschi as the wife of McGennis’s character, Brinker; Maria Muldaur as a singing waitress at a donut shop; blues guitarist Magic Slim as the father of Brinker’s partner, Duffy; harmonica great James Cotton; the Average White Band, for Christ’s sake.
Certainly anyone can admire the beauty of the Milton Rogovin photographs that McGennis uses in montage for the opening credits and again in the middle of the film as an innovative means to cast an elegiac mood and deepen the audience’s understanding of the community in which the story unfolds. But if you are from Buffalo, Rogovin’s photos have an especially deep resonance. And you absolutely need to be from Buffalo to appreciate lines like “that joke of a subway” or “the 33—freeway of the future.” You need to know the city to understand the love with which McGennis shoots the Colored Musicians Club, the Ellicott Square Building, the Colonel Ward Pumping Station, and most especially the Hotel Lafayette, pre-refurbishment.
If you’re not from here, it will mean nothing to you that a family sits down to a dinner of lake perch and dreams of moving to Florida; a reference to Super Duper, or to the closing of the Central Terminal, are just words. And how, if you are not from Buffalo, can you appreciate a cameo by Lance Diamond steering the fireboat Cotter through the canyons of the grain elevators, as Sharon Jones dances and sings on deck?
You simply can’t. Nor will you warm to appearances by Rick Jeanneret, Danny Neaverth, and the Queen City Roller Girls, or to scenes shot in Santasiero’s and the Adam Mickiewicz Library & Dramatic Circle. Queen City is a paean to Buffalo and the people who live here. It’s a film by a Buffalonian for Buffalonians.
It is also, of course, a narrative film. It’s 1980 in Buffalo; the mills are closed. McGennis plays Brinker, a Buffalo cop whose father was murdered by a mobster with whom elected officials socialize, and who runs a prostitution ring out of the Hotel Lafayette. Brinker sets out to expose the mobster and the corruption, dragging his partner along for what turns out to be a very rough ride.
“I grew up watching a lot of ’70s movies: Car Wash, John Waters, The French Connection, blaxploitation, all of those,” McGennis says. “We’ve seen those genres many times over, but to inject it with Buffalo architecture, metaphor, and music, it really becomes a unique intersection...And I’ve always wanted to do a period piece, and that was a real challenge—how do you do a poor man’s independent film?”
The story is propelled by McGennis’s dialogue, which is at turns campy and tongue-in-cheek and deadly earnest, and by the music. McGennis wrote all the film’s original songs and gave them to his musical guest stars to perform; and while they serve to reflect the plot and the characters more than to develop them, they inject an unusual dynamic to this homage, an entirely separate tone. The film very nearly is a musical: Some scenes are resolved with a song; some musical numbers, including the incredible interlude with Sharon Jones on the Cotter, serve no other purpose than to pivot the film from one mood to another, and to delight.
The film’s cast is a mix of local actors (Vincent O’Neill as a gruff police captain, Peter Palmisano as the mob boss, Josephine Hogan as Brinker’s mother-in-law, and many more) and outside help, like veteran character actor Peter Jason and former porn star Lezley Zen. Vivica A. Fox plays Lady Midnight, a sultry blues singer modeled on the late Dodo Greene.
McGennis shot the film over three years, a schedule forced on him by global economics: McGennis’s films are largely self-financed, and though he achieves remarkable production value for very little money (where did he find so many period-correct cars? where did he find phone booths?), filmmaking is an expensive proposition. McGennis’s business, which manufactured luggage for Harley-Davidson, lost its contract to a Chinese company while he was shooting Queen City, further straitening the film’s budget. So McGennis determined that he would make a strength of that limitation by slowing down production, ruminating over the script, taking time “to seek what the film requires,” he says, rather than trying to finish the film within a tight time frame with whatever resources and ideas were available in the moment.
“We’re so bombarded now,” he says. “It’s kind of nice to see a movie that’s handcrafted rather than just slammed in and out.”
McGennis considers his decision to make films about the city to be his way of contributing to and honoring the community where he was reared and where he is raising his own children. It could have been sculpture; it could have been woodcarving. (“My wife says, ‘Why don’t you just write a novel?’” he says.) But it turned out to be filmc, with all its logistical challenges and enormous commitment of time and money.
“Unfortunately, those realities don’t run in parallel lines to my priorities as parent,” he says, laughing. “I’m very blessed to have a wife that lets me take it right to the edge or pull a U-turn. It’s scary. It’s scares me sometimes; it’s such a leap of faith. I feel like Columbus sometimes, going on a voyage with no island in sight.”
Watch the trailer for Queen City
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