It almost seems unfair, at this point, to post a review of Dan Pritzker’s silent film Louis. It’s not that I haven’t seen the the film, I have, but I’m not positive that I’ve actually heard it. Featuring a flowing musical score penned by Jazz’s presiding dean, Wynton Marsalis, the film will be on tour through the last week of August with live accompaniment by Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad and a ten-piece ensemble. If the phrase “concert film” has been claimed by documentarians, then the only other term I could think of for Louis is “event film”. Recounting a reverie of the early life of trumpet great Louis Armstrong, the film’s five live showings will be nothing short of a grand event.
Pritzker and writers Derick Martini, Steve Martini and David Rothschild came up with a gimmick film, a riff on a bygone era of cinema and music; the birth, as it were, of both. We are brought into early 20th century New Orleans, a town with a hopping brothel, and evil magistrate, and streets teeming with competing horn blowers. The tale follows our young protagonist, Louis (Anthony Coleman), as he gets mixed up in the affairs of Grace (Shanti Lowry), a woman of the night looking to protect her newborn from the horrors of the world she has endured. Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley) rules the town by force, and once he learns he is the father of Grace’s baby, he sicks his goon Pat McMurphy (Michael Rooker) on her in hopes of shutting her up. That is, not if Louis has anything to say about it.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, perhaps most well known for his work with a young Steven Spielberg and an old Woody Allen, clearly approached the film looking to exhume a vaudevillian style, a time when actors caked their faces with makeup just so that their expressions might be seen in the cheap seats. As cinema grew technologically, this tradition fell away, allowing photographers to get in and capture an actor’s essence au natural. It seems that Zsigmond is out to prove something on his own, using exaggerated, “caked on”, cinematography. He celebrates the artifice of silent cinema: the sterile sound stages, the comic fast motion, the tinted, washed out look. The trouble is that artifice can only go so far, coming off as a one-joke parody rather than an exploration of the way things were.
Part way through the film, when our heroine heads into her brothel, the camera slides past a porch, through another entrance, up a stairwell and around the den of iniquity, in a series of long takes. Never mind that this would have been impossible to do in the silent cinema days, both for the weight of the camera and the shortness of the reels; I couldn’t help but question whether or not this shot has any place in this film regardless of time. It’s impressive, like most long takes, only for its ambition. In execution, it adds little than if we got snips and snaps of the building through montage. On top of that, we witness a room full of half clothed harlots and their Johns, each couple more racy than the next. The women exude a sense of 21st century pornographic beauty, a far cry from period specific hookers. That, however, is the point.
One cannot think of Louis as a film with musical accompaniment, but a concert with an adjoining film. Marsalis’s scores are predictable and derivative, but that doesn’t mean they don’t serve an important narrative purpose. This is clearly an emotional history of Jazz, focusing on it’s faster progenitor, Dixieland. And that’s really the point. If we look at music in the 20th century, right up to our most recent aural movements, much of it stems from the original “Devil’s Music”, Jazz. In that sense, Pritzker really earned his R rating here, giving Jazz a bit of sex, a bit of naughtiness. Too quickly we think of the musical genre as relegated to easy listeners and junior high school students, too often we mistake it for a dead language. Pritzker and Marsalis are here to say Jazz is not only alive but still capable of shocking us, of pushing us to our darker, some would say more interesting, mind space. In that sense, Louis, as far as I’ve heard it, is a rousing success. But to watch it without music, is to watch very little.
Louis will be at the Apollo Theater in New York City on Monday, August 30th. It is currently touring the U.S. through August 31st. For more details, visit the film’s official website.