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by Jay Seaver

"A great silent comedy with great music, if that's not a contradiction."
5 stars

SCREENED WITH LIVE MUSIC: When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning a trip to New York to see a new movie inspired by the early life of Louis Armstrong, I asked him to guess what sort of movie it was. Well, he figured, since we wouldn't be playing guess-the-genre if it were obvious, that left out the musical. It took some time to get to "silent comedy", which in 2010 has be considered an unusual (if attention-getting) choice.

It's 1907 New Orleans, and young Louis (Anthony Coleman) is already working as a barker on a coal wagon, longingly looking at the cornet in a pawn shop window. But before meeting him, we're introduced to Grace Lemannais (Shanti Lowry), a talented dancer who, like the other girls in Mahagany Hall, is expected to do more than sing for her supper - with the occasional result being a baby girl like Grace's. The father is Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley), the corrupt justice who collects the "tax" from the local brothels. He's also running for governor, and doesn't need word about this to come out. Lucky for Grace, then, that a certain little boy has something of a crush on her.

There aren't a whole lot of silent films made today; when one does appear, it's usually the product of someone like Guy Maddin, intent on making his film look like something from another era to the point of fetishizing imperfect lighting and decaying film stock (I love Maddin, but he does lavish attention on surface details which can push people away). From the very start, it's clear that co-writer/director Dan Pritzker is not taking that tack. The picture is crisp and sharp; it doesn't throw a bunch of primary colors in the audience's face, but it is in color; skin tones are warm browns rather than near-blacks that blend into the shadows. Modern digital effects are used on occasion, and the movie is paced and cut quickly, though without scenes looking sped-up as can be the case with pre-sound films. Pritzker avails himself of twenty-first century technology to make a silent film for a twenty-first century audience.

And it's a funny, energetic one. Pritzker and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond give us the grand tour of the Mahagany with a long, impressive tracking shot that has a lot of moving pieces, and that's just the most showy piece of an impressively mounted independent film. The story is a little simplistic at times, and at other moments a little scattershot owing to the movie's odd genesis - Louis was made as a companion piece to Pritzker's as-yet-unreleased Buddy Bolden movie, with which it shares cast and crew - but it does a nice job of stringing funny bits together. Large chunks of the movie are given over to chases that could come straight from the Keystone Kops, and while there are some serious moments, much of the film is quality slapstick. Pritzker doesn't just make a talkie without sound (although some of the jokes are relatively modern); he emphasizes movement and has his cast give broad, theatrical, and physical performances.

Nobody seems to be having more fun with that than Jackie Earle Haley, who is playing Judge Perry as an evil Charlie Chaplin even before his facial hair is trimmed down to something a bit more Little Tramp-ish or a scene that clearly references Modern Times. For all that he excels at the boisterous comedy, there are moments when he injects interesting humanity into what is mostly a cartoon villain; I'm very curious to see how Haley plays the same character in Bolden!. The same goes for Michael Rooker as his main henchman.

Young Anthony Coleman is pretty good as the title character; I suspect he's a little older than the six-year-old that Louis Armstrong would have been in 1907, but he and the other young actors take to silent comedy well - the exaggerated motions and facial expressions come naturally to them, but Coleman doesn't take it so far as to be mugging for the camera, and he impresses as an actor as well as a charismatic kid in a scene or two where he's confronted by the compromises his family's poverty forces upon them. Shanti Lowry is a good fit for the movie, too - she has a very expressive face that conveys emotion even when you can't hear the words, and Pritzker makes good use of her experience as a dancer.

A silent move is an odd choice for a movie about a musician, but it's not as though the movie is ever really silent; in fact, it's a rare moment when the soundtrack is truly quiet. Pritzker (a musician himself) has chosen tracks for every scene, and the soundtrack is performed by pianist Cecile Licad, trumpet great Wynton Marsalis, and his 10-piece jazz ensemble. Pieces chosen are a combination of classical, 19th-century folk music, and jazz, including some of Marsalis's own compositions and pieces by Jelly Roll Morton and other greats. The soundtrack is part of what propels the movie along, and while I suspect that most screenings won't be quite as amazing as the ones where Marsalis, Licad, and company provide live accompaniment - I kind of doubt that they will feature the overture or have the music continue after the credits - it's certainly going to be a high point.

I won't lie - the experience of seeing "Louis" with the live ensemble at the historic Apollo Theater would likely be one of my favorites even if the movie itself were not a blast. It may not be for everyone - some people just can't get into silent movies, and others should be warned that despite much of it being a zany, kid-friendly romp, a good chunk does take place in a brothel with the attendant nudity and themes. If you're okay with that, though, I highly recommend it as a great modern silent movie.

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originally posted: 09/04/10 04:00:27
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  25-Aug-2010 (R)



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