Bolden: A Terrific New Film About the “Father of Jazz”

Today, according to some sources, is the birthday of a man who has been called The Father Of Jazz, Buddy Bolden, whom we wrote a little about here. It seemed a fitting way to observe the day to watch the film Bolden, released in May of this year and now available to stream on Amazon.

Written and directed by billionaire heir and philanthropist Daniel Pritzker, one might be strongly tempted to write off this film as a dilettante effort, a vanity project, except for one thing: it’s pretty bloody amazing. Where it’s strong it is really strong and in ways that I care about. Normally in efforts like this, where the film-maker for whatever reason has endless cash to throw down a sinkhole, that’s where it goes — down a sinkhole. But for this long term labor of love, Pritzker appears to have amplified and complemented his own clear knowledge by hiring extraordinarily talented people. I was above all impressed by the art direction/sets/costumes (incredibly, jaw-droppingly accurate in a way these films typically are not), and editing (Thomas J. Nordberg and Chris Steele-Nicholson).

Astoundingly, this movie has been in the works for over 15 years. Pritzker shot an entirely different version with a different cast in 2004, did some reshoots for that version in 2010, then shelved it entirely and went back to the drawing board with the present film as the final result.

The viewer is warned: this story is told from the point of view of a mad-man. Many may find the film downright incoherent — it is cut like a Welles movie. Not to imply that it is as good as one, but who knows? Time will tell. But, rather, I mean to say that it is extremely non-linear and non-literal. It skips back and forth through time, and it goes on fantasy excursions. The hero Buddy Bolden was institutionalized in 1907 at the age of 30 for alcohol induced dementia and schizophrenia, and we are looking back at his life through HIS eyes. So I found the film a refreshing departure from the usual by-the-numbers bio-pics, most of which are dreadful. Bolden is more challenging, like an art film, and I found myself comparing it to such things as Daughters of the Dust and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song on that basis. At any rate, this movie is so gorgeous to look at, I intend to watch it again and again for inspiration from its imagery. So kudos to Pritzker and cinematographer Neal Norton on that score.

Pritzker also got top people for his cast. Gay Carr (Death in Paradise and The Deuce) plays Bolden. Reno Wilson nails Louis Armstrong. Ian McShane and Michael Rooker are a couple of other recognizable faces in the cast, playing belittling and exploitive whites in Bolden’s life. Some of the amazing and striking touches in the film include the body work of the actors. This is a world of dichotomy: buttoned-up Edwardians vs. sexy, sweaty, writhing, half-naked and full-naked proto jazz lovers. There was one particularly cool scene that depicted a battle of the bands, between a straight-laced ragtime ensemble on a village green and a nearby jazz outfit that descends on them like a bunch of berzerkers. (Bolden LITERALLY descends — from a parachute off a hot air balloon!). Another cool scene has Bolden walking outside a whorehouse, with blues music streaming out, and he takes his horn in hand and also has a conversation with THAT.

As for literal conversations, the dialogue seemed to me one of the film’s weaker elements, so I’m glad the visuals (and the music) were so superlative. Many of the spoken lines are those way too “on the nose” exchanges characters have in musical bio-pics. It gets frustrating because such films depict artists being articulate in ways pioneers seldom are. The theorizing and the jabbering normally come AFTER a breakthrough has happened, once you’ve figured out what you’ve accomplished. In bio-pics, the characters are always right there like scientists, talking about what they want to do with their work, and knowing with confidence the steps to get them there. The real life stories are normally full of doubts, confusion, mixed motives, etc. Or simply UNSPOKEN. A musician tries something and then everyone says “Cool!” and that’s how the progress gets made. But fortunately, there are only a few short over-explanatory scenes in the movie, and, like every other scene and shot in the film, they are cut up in the swirling, choppy, wonderfully disorienting aesthetic of the movie, which visually echoes the early hot jazz it aims to chronicle.

Far be it from me to second guess musical director Wynton Marsalis, who is the world’s expert, but my main quibble or question mark with the film is with the depictions of Bolden’s own music. No recordings of it survive so no one knows for sure what it sounded like, but since Bolden made his music roughly between 1900 and 1907, one would not expect it to sound exactly like the fully-realized jazz we hear in those scenes, but rather something much more tentative and prototypical. Bolden was in the process of inventing something; here his music is confidently polished and, most importantly, recognizable as the kind of music his colleagues and acolytes were making several years later. What the filmmakers have done is highly enjoyable of course and will probably have broader appeal than the speculative approach I am suggesting. But overall the film is appropriately a sonic feast as well as a visual one.

The bottom line is, I don’t know what to tell ya. I think Bolden will best be appreciated by people who at least know a little about the real story. Those who don’t will walk away mighty unclear of the facts, and yet, personally, I think that’s more than okay. Those movies that just run down the facts are normally terrible, anyway. Whereas, if you wanted to teach somebody about why jazz EXISTS, why people love it, and why it’s important, I can’t think of a better avenue than this movie, because you experience and feel it, which in a story about music is much more important than the “1492” of it.