BoldenReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/07/19 12:44:04
We don't know much about Buddy Bolden; it's generally accepted that he played a crucial part in the development of jazz, arguably inventing it, but spent the latter half of his relatively short life in a mental institution. One photograph survives, and none of the actual music. It's thin material for a biography, and that filmmaker Dan Pritzker makes acknowledging this a core part of the film is both the great strength of "Bolden" and what often makes it frustrating: The audience comes in wanting to know his story, but much of what follows involves being told that it can't.It's introduced by a 1931 radio broadcast featuring the return of Louis Armstrong (Reno Wilson) to New Orleans; the nurse on night duty at the institution is listening (it is exceedingly rare to hear a fellow African-American on the radio), and the sound makes its way through the air vents to Bolden's room. It stirs memories in him, from meeting his wife Nora (Yaya DaCosta), stunts to get attention for his new sound encouraged by his manager Bartley (Erik LaRay Harvey), and clashes with Judge Perry (Ian McShane), at least partly due to Buddy's fondness for the same dance-hall girl (Kearia Schroeder), which as much as the drugs and the breakdown led to him winding up remanded to that place.
Or at least, that's the legend - which also includes one recording on a wax cylinder that has never surfaced over the course of a century - and the odds are that there's just not going to be a lot of new records about a black man who lived at the turn of the twentieth century turning up. Pritzker deals with this by using Bolden's mental health issues to not necessarily make him an unreliable narrator but to leap over gaps and connect one incident to another in a way that reflects the spottiness and unreliability of the historical record without ever feeling tentative or too self-aware. It feels like the best anyone could piece a narrative together under these circumstances without breaking the fourth wall and apologizing, and once the trick is clear, it becomes a part of fabric of the film, as Bolden both resists and is puzzled by the idea of recording a performance (the live experience was both part of the art and how they made their money at the time) while black people were often considered disposable.
For all that it's a nifty conceit, it can sometimes make for a dry movie. Part of that's expectations - people are used to scenes like those in the asylum providing a bit of context or being a more familiar environment that can be used as a stepping stone to the more linear meat of the movie, not something that permeates the film and throws a viewer off-balance on a regular basis. That disjointed style can often reduce the story to set of anecdotes that don't build to an end or come together into an explanation. It also doesn't give the cast much of a consistent frame of reference, which may be a larger issue for a film noteworthy for how much it has been re-shot (though much of this cast likely only had to deal with the last round or two). Gary Carr, for instance, gives each scene the Buddy Bolden it needs, but the film isn't really built to show how he changes over time, or how who he is in one situation comes from the same place as another. It's the same for Yaya DaCosta's Nora, while Ian McShane and Kearia Schroeder often give the impression that there was more for Judge Perry and Grace to do at one point, but all that is left is a vague sense of their importance. Erik LaRay Harvey at least gets to make Bartley a memorable supporting character, while Breon Pugh is perhaps mostly lucky to have an intact story arc as the friend since childhood who played clarinet in Buddy's band until a better musician came along, but he sells it.
It's an unconventionally handsome movie, much of it is shot in night and shadow, sometimes through a gauzy layer that indicates Bolden's hazy memory. It means that the scenes shot in outdoor daylight, or the colorful club where Armstrong is playing, pop even without being flashy, although it's also dark enough that bad projection or otherwise watching it under less-than-ideal conditions could deal it a pretty hard blow. It does look and sound great, never giving the impression of corners being cut, and that's especially true with the soundtrack: Wynton Marsalis composes, arranges, and performs it, and he reaches into jazz's ragtime roots for a stripped-down sound that is just starting to differentiate itself without seeming primitive.The history of the film is occasionally as odd as anything in it; Pritzker has worked on it off and on for a decade, with the film originally meant to share cast and crew with silent comedy "Louis" (which, near as I can tell, played a handful of times in 2010 with the intent of being released in tandem with "Bolden"), but at least two rounds of extensive reshoots have resulted in it being almost completely recast. The two will still make an interesting pair if this film's release gets "Louis" off whatever shelf it's on, though on its own, it winds up more an interesting idea than the compelling biography that Bolden merits.
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