'Bolden': Film Review

Fred Norris
Off beat.
5/3/2019

This impressionistic biopic of unsung jazz musician Buddy Bolden holds your attention even as it eschews clarity.

Co-writer and director Dan Pritzker's long-in-the-works biopic Bolden is an ostentatious production with an enigma at its center. An opening title card admits to there being little information about its subject, African American cornetist Buddy Bolden. It then goes on in a second text crawl to claim him as the prime inventor, during the early 20th century, of the New Orleans style of music that became Jazz.

That's some primo mythmongering, though Bolden was a crucial figure in the genre's development whose work was lost to time for a variety of reasons. These include such tragic-artist perennials as drug addiction and mental illness, to say nothing of the challenges of living as a black person in the Jim Crow south. And it's to Pritzker's credit that he doesn't sugarcoat those horrors. If anything, his mistake is in treating them almost exclusively as psychosomatic window dressing.

The film is structured as a dissociative flashback, with Bolden (Gary Carr) recalling his life in fragments from a mental institution in 1931. A national broadcast of a concert given by Louis Armstrong (Reno Wilson), which Bolden hears eking through the hospital's ventilation shafts, occasions his reverie. In action, this conceit is trapped part way between the audacious stylings of Bob Fosse's raw-nerve movie memoir All That Jazz (1979) and the wackadoo incoherence of Tony Scott and Denzel Washington's malleable-memories thriller Deja Vu (2006).

It's still something of an admirable approach, and it gives rise to some stunning visuals and transitions. Time and again, Bolden will seamlessly move between realities (for example, walking from his hospital room straight into the juke joint where he once played to a rapt audience). Or he'll interact with ethereal figures from his past who appear as either mirror reflections or as Star Wars-esque Force ghosts. Sound is no less important: In one remembrance from Bolden's childhood, he's in a roomful of seamstresses and the looms click-clack out a rhythm that inspires an impromptu ballet.

These scenes are quite beautiful, as is the nearly wall-to-wall musical score co-composed and/or curated by executive producer Wynton Marsalis, though none of this came to life easily. Pritzker, one of several heirs to a billionaire family fortune, financed much of the film himself and has admitted in interviews to a steep creative learning curve. Bolden originally starred Anthony Mackie in the title role. That version was shot around 2007, back-to-back with a Louis Armstrong companion piece, Louis (released in 2010), which aped the look and feel of a silent movie. Pritzker eventually junked much of that initial Bolden footage and reshot the movie several times over.

What remains bears the scars of a tortured gestation, though not to uninteresting or, at times, unaffecting ends. There's tremendous beauty in how Pritzker and his cinematographer Neal Norton photograph the mostly black cast, with a luxuriantly humanizing glow akin to what Barry Jenkins and James Laxton achieved in the recent James Baldwin adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk. Whenever a white face appears (Michael Rooker and Ian McShane play the primary subjugators), the entire sordid history of American racial oppression feels like it suffuses the frame. Pritzker and Norton take this to an inspired extreme in a sequence set in a country club where blinding white light makes everything from the prim, wrinkled mouths of society ladies to the powder-covered pastries they consume appear sickly and diseased.

Pritzker is good with elements like these, though the moments of Bolden that tend to stick are those that are more settled and which pass by swiftly, such as a long shot of a young boy running along the outer walls of a cemetery. It's a visual just cryptic enough to be suggestive, whereas most of the time, the imagery feels busy and labored, edited into elliptical shards and superimpositions as a way of distracting from the movie's overall hollowness. Since the lead character is effectively a mystery man, some lack of grounding is appropriate. Unfortunately, the impressionism — the improvisation, you might say, of this particular life (mirroring, one supposes, Bolden's approach to music) — is so dominant that it finally proves a crutch.

Production companies: King Bolden
Cast: Gary Carr, Erik LaRay Harvey, Ian McShane, Michael Rooker, Yaya DaCosta, Reno Wilson, Robert Ri'chard, Karima Westbrook
Director: Dan Pritzker

Executive producers: Ed Arrendell, Leonard Loventhal, Wynton Marsalis
Producers: Jonathan Cornick, Michele Tayler
Co-producers: Chris Bromley, David S. Dranitzke, Bruce Moriarty, Rudy A. Persico

Screenplay: Dan Pritzker, David Rothschild
Music: Mark Isham, Wynton Marsalis, Scott Steiner
Cinematography: Neal Norton
Editing: Thomas J. Nordberg, Chris Steele-Nicholson

108 minutes