Film Review: “Bolden” — Putting Flesh on a Jazz Myth
By Steve Provizer
Bolden is an intense film, depicting a life lived in a horrifically racist time and place.
Bolden, directed by Daniel Pritzker. Screening at AMC Liberty Tree Mall 20, Danvers and AMC Methuen 20.
When I mentioned this film to several people, I was greeted with blank expressions — Buddy who? The jazz world, on the other hand, has anticipated this film more avidly than any I can recall — even more than Bird or Round Midnight (very few jazz people had hopes for La La Land). This intense anticipation came about, first, because the subject of the film, cornet player Buddy Bolden, is an important figure in jazz mythology. Second, because trumpet player/impresario/lightning rod Wynton Marsalis was an Executive Producer and was responsible for re-creating the music that Bolden’s band played in the movie. It’s hard to imagine a $30 million film about an obscure jazz musician at the turn-of-the-century New Orleans would be made about without someone with Marsalis’ name recognition, though the wealth and persistence of director Daniel Pritzker no doubt was an assist.
So, how do you approach making a movie about a cornet player who left no recordings, about whom there is a mere handful of facts, including only a few contemporary descriptions of Bolden’s playing. What we do know is that he became “King Bolden” and that he went “insane” (although there’s no diagnosis of what this meant) and was institutionalized for the last 24 years of his life. This is pretty thin beer for a biographical film though, in interviews, the filmmakers insist that the movie is not a “biopic.” However, by making the bold claim that Bolden “Invented Jazz,” the film tries to have it both ways: asserting the weight of Bolden’s contribution while disavowing any need to show us why and how the claim is credible.
In the absence of facts, the filmmakers have generated plenty of atmosphere, which is consistently dark, oppressive, and brutal. Bolden’s dank asylum is a nearly constant presence; from time to time we see the broken Bolden in the ‘present,’ listening to a Louis Armstrong radio broadcast. And we see the musician in “flashback” times, reliving the events of his life and hallucinating various tableaus. The doings and settings outside of the asylum are no less bleak. There are savage scenes of bare-knuckle fights (more on that later) and the apartments where people live smack of squalor.
Scenes of the band playing to black audiences bring some welcome light into the darkness. But those interludes, meant to appear gritty via their décor and lighting, are juxtaposed with episodes of Bolden and other black bands playing at genteel “socials” in white houses. The latter makes the places the band plays in seem even more dissolute. The only parts of the story bathed in light are related to Bolden’s visions of himself as a young boy, seemingly lying on the floor of a large fabric factory with scores of black women at sewing machines. In these moments, Bolden seems fixated on various wheels — turned by belts — performing industrial tasks at the factory. The meaning of this imagery is baffling. His other fixation at the factory is a beautiful woman he encounters at other moments in the film. She is a young woman and he’s a child; in his mind, they walk off hand in hand. It’s unclear whether this is supposed to signify a lost mother-son reunion or given the looks they exchange, if it’s meant to carry a more perverse sexual connotation.
The concept of the “tableau” is very important in Bolden. In fact, there are almost no “scenes” as we usually think of them; that is, extended exchanges of dialogue; “conversations,” per se. Characters interact in brief, highly charged moments of physical and emotional contact and conflict. It’s in this context that the viewer has to judge how well the filmmakers have managed to render the key touchstones of Bolden’s life: his music and his madness.
The cinematography throughout is strong and the visual representation of the increasing fragmentation of Bolden’s mind, the crumbling of his internal state, is credible.
The filmmakers feel the need to “explain” Bolden’s mental dissolution, at least to some degree. Bolden has a manager who is corrupt and all too willing to collaborate with venial and hateful white people. (There is one benign white character, Oscar Zahn, a white-haired man with a foreign accent who, legend — and the film — has it, made the only recordings of Bolden on wax cylinder.) The manager and the white characters stage incredibly brutal fights with groups of black men, who are treated like chattel, with numbers painted on their backs. These scenes are stark and disturbing, as are other episodes involving violence and degradation, including the stated intent of the “Judge” to strip black people of their culture. As Bolden watches all this going on in stony silence we are invited to imagine how deeply he is being harmed. Overall, it is questionable whether his exposure to such craven and sadistic behavior fully explains the musician’s madness.
On the other hand, Bolden is not portrayed as a choirboy. He’s promiscuous and ,it is suggested, though not clearly, that he may be shooting drugs.
Evaluating Wynton Marsalis’ score isn’t easy. For one thing, the trumpeter has tremendous musical technique and a very characteristic sound. It’s hard to listen to him simulate Bolden’s playing and not hear Marsalis’ tone and adept technique at work. Also, there’s the issue of hearing a cornet tone generated on a top-notch instrument. One wonders whether such instruments were available to Bolden, valve trombonist Willie Cornish, and the others in the band. Generally, the performances for the film are inhibited by a patina of smoothness, slickness even, that, to some degree undermines the sense of realism the music should bring to the story.
Even though there are no recordings of Bolden, we can make a pretty reasonable guess at how he sounded. Marsalis says he created a composite sound, based on three horn players who were influenced by Bolden and were recorded during their lifetimes: Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson and King Oliver. Fair enough. He also says: “I put those three styles together and I figured, ‘OK, these three musicians were all influenced by Buddy Bolden, so they took an aspect of Bolden’s personality to construct their playing. So, Bolden could play better than all three of them.’” This I find odd, and counter intuitive. Bolden’s playing would most likely have been simpler, not technically superior, to the players who succeeded him. Sometimes the growls and blues inflections Marsalis provided rang true to me and true to the consensual period descriptions of Bolden’s playing as being loud and rough. Generally, though, Marsalis performed at a very technically accomplished level, playing in the upper register of the horn, ripping off fast, deft arpeggios. The public would not notice or care, but aficionados of early jazz may well be irritated at the disjunction.
There are other problems in the film, including its vision of women. In general, there’s an odd blurring of identities, with personality traits seeming to be redolent of “all women” rather than those of individuals. And, apart from one woman, who is merely a scold, nearly all females in the film writhe and leer to the musician’s playing as if they are in the throes of an uncontrollable sexual transport. This is well beyond what’s needed to prove to us the extent of Bolden’s sexual charisma.
There are plot premises that one can choose to accept on faith — or not. Historical veracity is not an issue — there’s not enough history to go on — but whether or not the scenes dramatically serve the film. Several episodes are ambiguous: who is that older man in the bed?; why is Bolden staring at the factory wheels?; why, as a child, is he holding that woman’s hand?; did he shoot drugs?; is that his son? Some aspects of the plot are acceptable — Bolden starting a riot at a club, improvising on a classical theme with clarinetist George Baquet, recording a cylinder, jumping into a parade and snapping, a female cellist playing outside a whore house.
Bolden is an intense film, depicting a life lived in a horrifically racist time and place. Because Buddy Bolden holds a singular place in jazz mythology, many jazz people would probably prefer a more hagiographic, less violence-ridden approach. I left feeling that Bolden was mostly well crafted, particularly its cinematography, and offered some insight into race relations. Yet there are elements that undermine the film’s potential power: lapses in narrative clarity, a weakness for pastiche over developed scenes, women treated as mere sexual objects, and an approach to Bolden’s music that may be effectively “cinematic,” but which often doesn’t match the ugly and turbulent action it reflected and inspired.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.