Don’t Shoot the Piano Player: Tonic (2023)

A couple of days ago, my good friend, John, THE QUICK FLICK CRITIC, introduced me to the work of his friend, Derek Presley. Derek represents Independent Films|Muscular Puppy, and his latest indie hit, Tonic, is currently touring the film festival circuit. What an honor it was to watch and review a pre-release movie, and let me tell you, this one definitely has potential for a distributor pickup. Please read my review and look out for Tonic in the near future!

Don’t Shoot the Piano Player: A Review of Tonic (2023)

There’s not a trace of leverage or a wallop of shame in the co-dependent relationship of a lowlife junkie indebted to a lowlife junkie. The never-ending cycle of empty threats and promises spirals through the late hours until the withdrawals kick in and someone cracks.

We follow Sebastian Poe (Billy Blair of Alita: Battle Angel), who’s apparently a talented pianist, but we never see him play a single note because he’s constantly chasing the $7,000 he owes Terry (Jason Coviello of Stranger Things), a crooked, strung out cop with a pulsating forehead. Racing an urban nightmare of muggers, hookers, gun dealers, and pissed-off club owners, Poe pops his pills, downs his bevs, and dodges one sticky situation after another. Some tight spots are downright hilarious (you’ll appreciate the hysterical term, “grandma gun”), while others are sobering (a dying sister and an unreachable debt are no match for a piano player who can’t even score a petty gig).   

Along with a blood-stained tux, Billy Blair wears a younger Bukowski mug and smells of gut whiskey through the screen. It’s difficult to conjure empathy for him, but his face is so weathered by external bludgeon blows, we root for him to duck lower. Writer/Director Derek Presley carefully frames his evening shots with cross sections of fluorescent color, delineating what is real and what feels like jonesing a dream. Unfortunately, none of this is a dream, and I was reminded of the downward spiral of Stephen Graham’s chef in Boiling Point (2021)—there is no end in sight unless it’s digging your own grave or having someone else dig it for you.

Tonic walks like a three-legged reservoir dog to the pace of Jarmusch, tv dinner included. Dragging our anti-hero by the collar to the light of salvation, the experience is gloriously despicable in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Like watching the three-legged dog cross a street, we can’t help but stare and reach deep down for reconciliation for either the dog or ourselves. A deceptive cadence on the piano leaves the choice to the nocturnal gods.

Be sure to follow to find out when and where Tonic will be released at your local film fest or indie theatre!

9 thoughts on “Don’t Shoot the Piano Player: Tonic (2023)

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  1. Excellent read. This sounds like something I’d watch in the way I’d watch Good Times. Hardly any redeeming qualities to the characters but you’re just compelled to see what happens next. Best of luck to Derek Presley! Sounds like he’s got something good going


    1. Thanks, Tom. You are right on: It is exactly like a Safdi Bros movie with intense unfolding and digging and wondering how the hell he is going to get out of the mess. Hope all is well. Can’t wait for summer break!


    1. Yeah, I’ve had a few experiences interviewing and reviewing pre-release movies, and this was my favorite. This aspiring filmmaker, Derek Presley, has a cool Tarantino/Scorsese vibe going on. Thanks for reading, Max. I’ve finally succumbed to the fact that with the little ones right now, there’s barely any time for the movie theatre, so I’m going to look backward on all my favorite movies and do a little expose on them – one by one (kind of like what you do with music!). Should be nostalgic fun, and that’s kind of the reason I’m doing this blog and meeting peeps like you 🙂 Hope all is well with you and the fam 🙂


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