(2010)3.5Mark DemingIn John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, newspaperman Maxwell Scott famously says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That logic seems to fly in the face of the truth, as if myth is more important than fact, but sometimes a legend can tell us as much as the facts can. Louis Armstrong is as famous and accomplished an artist as America produced in the 20th century; he may not have invented jazz, but more than anyone else he made it an international phenomenon, taking America's music around the world and defining for so many the sound of jazz's formative days in New Orleans as he reeled off his effortlessly brilliant trumpet solos. Dozens of books have been written about Armstrong -- a couple were penned by the man himself -- so what is left to say about him?
Dan Pritzker answers this question in wildly entertaining fashion in his first feature film, Louis. Ultimately, Louis is an imagined version of what Armstrong's hardscrabble childhood might have been like, but while by its own admission the film plays fast and loose with what's known about his early history, the facts aren't the point here so much as imagining a world in which the joy, the passion, the struggle, and the emotional drive that fueled Armstrong's music came together, sparking the imagination of a youngster who in time would inexorably change the shape of art in America. Louis creates a New Orleans of the mind, a place where love and sadness of all sorts can be the building blocks of dreams and of art. That's a tall order, but Louis pulls it off -- and makes it lots of fun.
All the more remarkable is that Pritzker does this without dialogue. Louis is a silent film and its visual style was clearly inspired by the classic comedies of the golden age of silent movies -- Charlie Chaplin is an obvious touchstone for this picture, but the ghosts of dozens of screen comics and silent film craftsmen clearly inform this work, and Pritzker has fused them, filtered them though his own imagination, and come up with something that's compelling, funny, moving, and visually striking. And while the film is silent, that's not to say there's nothing to hear. For the film's initial engagements, the screenings feature live musical accompaniment from a superb jazz band led by Wynton Marsalis as well as classical pianist Cecile Licad, performing a score that combines original material, piano works by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and tunes by an array of jazz masters (from King Oliver to Duke Ellington to Charles Mingus), woven into a seamless web of beauty and emotion that's more eloquent than what 95 percent of Hollywood screenwriters could knock off.
Louis's narrative is simple but slippery, jumping from one thread to another while giving them all a chance to wind around one another. Anthony Coleman plays Louis, a six-year-old boy whose father has abandoned the family and whose mother makes a living as a prostitute. Louis has a job, helping two men who deliver coal, and Louis' most prized possession is a toy trumpet, as he dreams of the day he can own a real horn. One day, Louis helps a beautiful Creole woman he sees in the street and she sweetly displays gratitude and kindness to him. Louis is immediately smitten with Grace (Shanti Lowry), though he soon learns her story is not so different from his own; she lives and works at a luxurious brothel, the Mahogany Palace, and has recently given birth to a child fathered by one of her regular customers, the less than scrupulous Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley). The judge wants to keep the facts of his relationship with Grace (and their child) from becoming common knowledge, and he and his sidekick, Pat McMurphy (Michael Rooker), try to keep them quiet or get rid of them altogether, though Perry's paternal impulses get in the way. And a tax collector and the madam of a competing brothel are in cahoots to put the Mahogany Palace out of business, which would leave Grace without a home or any means of support.
Put into text, Louis' story sounds grim, but even though there's certainly plenty of melodrama in this story, onscreen the movie is full of humor and warmth, and the dazzling visuals make it a pleasure even at its saddest. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond has helped give Louis a remarkable look -- clear and brilliantly detailed but with the ineffable mystery of an old photograph -- and employing a faded color palate that resembles an old postcard, age only adding to its curious beauty. Louis is full of dance numbers choreographed by Hinton Battle that practically jump off the screen, and if sometimes the ladies of the Mahogany Palace seem to be more informed by the Pussycat Dolls than the French Quarter in 1907, in context the dancing works beautifully, playing off the moving camera with a sexy, muscular grace. And the cast hits just the right notes with this material. Anthony Coleman is all wide-eyed wonder as the young Louis; Shanti Lowry's luminous beauty and gloriously expressive eyes are made to order for Grace; and given their history of playing dark and villainous characters, Jackie Earle Haley and Michael Rooker deliver the film's biggest surprises. Embodying a sort of mutated Charlie Chaplin on five cups of coffee, Haley's Judge Perry is a truly inspired slapstick creation that has depth to go along with its broad comedy, and Rooker is nearly as impressive as McMurphy -- someone needs to cast these guys together in a comedy very soon.
Director Dan Pritzker has accomplished something quite remarkable with Louis. Though he's a first-time director, he reveals an impressive fluency with the style of the silent era, using key elements of the visual grammar of the period (iris effects, playing with camera speed, the judicious use of intertitles) while knowing when to take the material into the 21st century, and he understands how to pull the audience along with him without making the results feel callously manipulative. Just as importantly, Louis tells a story that in its way speaks volumes about what gives a voice to the creative spirit, and how the darkest elements of fate can inspire music that's full of beauty and joy. Louis doesn't always concern itself with the documented facts of Louis Armstrong's childhood, but as a meditation on what may have made him one of the greatest American musicians ever, it's insightful and more valuable than a more accurate portrait may have been.
And though Louis would certainly still be a strong and effective film with a recorded music track, Pritzker's decision to present the film with live musical accompaniment is a gamble that pays off handsomely. Wynton Marsalis and his ensemble perform with the right balance of passion and tight precision needed for this project, and his knowledge and love of the classic New Orleans style made him the ideal man to score this film; his original music and the classic pieces he interpolates into the performance are great listening while also serving the visuals beautifully. And if Cecile Licad's solo piano interludes are less flashy, her command of the instrument and subtle emotional power make them equally effective. As a concert presentation, Louis is far more than a stunt or a glorified jazz show -- it's a fusion of sound and image in which each reinforces the strength of the other, and given that the film is set in a time when recorded music was in its infancy, it's only fitting that a story celebrating the power of music should demonstrate that more than a century after this story takes place, a handful of gifted musicians on a stage can still cast a spell that's more wondrous than any recording system can fully reproduce.
Director Dan Pritzker takes the helm for this silent film centered on a life-changing experience in the childhood of famed jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Young Louis (Anthony Coleman) longs to become a famous trumpet player. Louis' life takes an unexpected twist, however, when the ambitious young musician has a chance encounter with the beautiful Grace (Shanti Lowry) and her infant daughter, Jasmine. It seems that Grace has gotten involved with the malevolent Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley), a local politician on the road to becoming governor. Should word of their relationship get out, Judge Perry's political ambitions will go up in flames. As Judge Perry attempts to intimidate Grace into silence, young Louis finds his passion for jazz growing.