The silent Louis speaks volumes

Anthony Coleman as Louis

Hugh Rainey watches Louis, the silent film feature by Dan Pritzer that gets its European première at the Barbican as part of the London Jazz Festival on 13 November

Scheduled for its European première at the London Jazz Festival on 13 November, with live musical backing directed by Wycliffe Gordon, Louis is the brainchild of Dan Pritzker, billionaire son of Hyatt Hotel chain founder Jay Pritzker.

Inspired by a showing of Chaplin's City Lights accompanied by a live symphony orchestra back in 2001, Pritzker financed and directed this silent film about Armstrong's early boyhood, with a fictitious story set in New Orleans in 1907.

Filmed in New Orleans in 2007, Louis was shot in tandem with a traditional two-hour feature film in colour and sound titled Bolden, yet to be released. These were audacious projects for a first time director, costing over $10 million.

Louis pays homage to Armstrong and Chaplin in particular, and to the beginnings of jazz and cinema in general. It cleverly recreates the exuberant, physical slapstick style and contrasting pathos of the early silent black and white films, the only obvious update being the cheerfully overt raunchiness of the frequent brothel scenes.

The film puts a Chaplinesque spin on Armstrong's early boyhood, involving him in a complicated, fictitious plot about a corrupt politician (an excellent performance in zestful Chaplin style by Jackie Earle Haley) and a prostitute (Shanti Lowry). Authentic details of  Louis’s boyhood are blended in – his job on the coal cart, his tuition at the coloured waifs' home.

Anthony Coleman's lively and confident portrayal of young Louis works well. Long-cherished images and legends of the burgeoning jazz scene abound – Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, honky-tonk pianists, band wagon street battles, parades, voodoo, cemeteries, etc. Buddy Bolden, Frankie Duson, Black Benny, John Robichaux and Tom Anderson all appear as characters in the story.

The visual aspect is enhanced by the spirited musical accompaniment of an original Wynton Marsalis score. Embracing a range of jazz styles, Marsalis mixes his own compositions with newly arranged passages from vintage jazz standards, notably associated with Armstrong, Ellington and Morton, with a good seasoning of blues. Interspersed with the instrumental jazz, pianist Cécile Licad plays music by the 19th century half Creole composer, Louis Gottschalk.

With jazz struggling for due recognition in the media, Pritzker's brave one-off enterprise deserves our support and applause, as an entertaining treat for both eye and ear. Let's wish his pending Buddy Bolden film well too.

Footnote: Asked in interview whether he'd ever considered becoming a jazz musician, Pritzker's refreshingly honest reply was, "No. It's a lot easier to play rock and roll." Now, there's a thought.

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More details on the London première.

The London Jazz Festival in association with BBC Radio runs from Fri 11- Sun 20 November. See www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk

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Filmography

LOUIS

Black and white silent film by Dan Pritzker. Accompanying musical score written by Wynton Marsalis. Ten-piece orchestra includes Wyciffe Gordon (tb, bb and dir.); Wes Anderson (as, ts, cl), Herlin Riley (d); Cecile Licad (solo p). Filmed in New Orleans in 2007. Premièred in USA, August 2010. (78.27) Website: www.louisthemovie.com


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