Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Birth of a Legend: Louis

Louis Armstrong is the quintessential musical Horatio Alger story. Though not born on the 4th of July as he believed, Armstrong undeniably came from mean circumstances. A child of New Orleans’ Storyville red light district, Armstrong received quite an education in life at a tender age. Those early formative years are stylishly dramatized in Dan Priztker’s Louis (trailer here), retro-silent film to be presented Monday the 30th in New York with a live soundtrack accompaniment performed by composer Wynton Marsalis, classical pianist Cecile Licard, and a 10-piece small big band (almost entirely consisting of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra alumnus).

Though Armstrong’s memoirs largely sanitize his childhood, it is generally accepted that from time to time, his mother engaged in the work Storyville was infamous for. Louis dispenses with euphemisms, taking viewers inside the venerable bordellos of New Orleans (hence the R rating). A worldly tyke, young Armstrong already has a crush on one of the working girls, Grace, a local near-celebrity who has just made her triumphant return to the Crescent City and the world’s oldest profession. Unfortunately, the thoroughly corrupt but politically ambitious Judge Perry also has eyes for Grace in an exploitative Jim Crow kind of way. Ironically, since the six year-old Armstrong is essentially invisible to Perry and his cronies, he finds ample snooping opportunities as he tries to foil the crooked jurist’s plans for Grace.

As one would expect given it carries the Wynton Marsalis seal of approval, Louis definitely gets its jazz correct. Mixing Marsalis originals with the compositions of Jewish-Creole classical composer L.M. Gottschalk, the film-concert experience definitely captures the sound of early Twentieth Century New Orleans. Indeed, Marsalis’ portions of the soundtrack are similar in tone to his music for Ken Burns’ Jack Johnson documentary, Unforgivable Blackness. While clearly inspired by Armstrong, there is also the hint of an Ellington influence, which echoes throughout Marsalis’ music.

Louis might look as good as it sounds thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond, the celebrated Hungarian cinematographer who defected shortly after the 1956 Soviet invasion. Indeed, his use of black-and-white with sepia color tints gives the film a vibrant yet sophisticated look. To his credit, rock musician turned jazz movie director Pritzker also shows an intuitive flair for camera movement, nicely conveying the earthy energy of its setting.

Despite its lack of dialogue (aside from periodic inter-titles) Louis had at least four credited screenwriters, including Pritzker. While their story arc is fairly simple, they add some nice period touches, like appearances from Buddy Bolden, the never-recorded cornetist considered the original jazz musician. The film also cleverly shoehorns real incidents in Armstrong’s life, including the circumstances that sent him to the so-called Colored Waifs’ Home, where he providentially joined the marching band, ultimately setting in motion a career as the most significant and influential musician in American history.

Bearing a strong likeness to the young Armstrong, charismatic Anthony Coleman also hints at the familiar Satchmo mannerisms fairly well, without descending into caricature. Deliberately resembling Chaplin (albeit in his later years) Jackie Earle Haley is strangely effective as Judge Perry, mixing in some surprising pathos with his physical comedy and scenery chewing villainy.

Louis is one of the better jazz films produced in recent years that will surely be even more rewarding with the live in-theater soundtrack performance. Though Marsalis might be controversial in some jazz circles for his perceived aesthetic conservatism, he is an energizing soloist with a charming stage presence and a golden trumpet tone. It’s a great band too. Known for excelling on gutbucket blues, trombonist Wycliffe “Pinecone” Gordon should have a particularly strong affinity for the material, having composed his own soundtracks for silent films. Affectionately recommended, the Louis tour starts Wednesday August 25th in Chicago, reaching New York’s Apollo Theater Monday (8/30).