The long-awaited, much-discussed film “Bolden!” has finally made it to the big screen. It opened in Wilmington at the AMC on Cinema Drive and after a short run will screen again at Thalian Hall as part of WHQR’s Cinematique on June 8 at 3 p.m. Directed by Dan Pritzker, “Bolden!” is less a biopic film and more an homage to Buddy Bolden—the New Orleans cornet player credited with birthing jazz. He is an almost mythical figure in some ways, as there are no existent recordings of his music. His contributions to the artform outlived him, so that his contributions are still considered essential. In the way of human curiosity, the less that is known about him, the more enticing he becomes.
In 2007 I started getting phone calls at the bookstore asking for biographies of Buddy Bolden, a legendary jazz musician that no one knew anything about (unless they watched Ken Burns “Jazz,” in which Wynton Marsalis talks about Buddy Bolden as the innovator of jazz, but I digress). Unfortunately, there were no full-length biographies we could find to sell the crew or creative team working on the then new movie that had set up shop in Wilmington. Little did I, or anyone else for that matter, suspect “Bolden!” would become one of the more bizarre chapters in film history in our area.
Director, coscreen writer and driving force behind the film, Dan Pritzker, loves music. He had a passionate desire to make this film, to tell Bolden’s story, and he had the personal fortune to make it possible. As the film industry left the state and headed for Georgia, Pritzker continued to work on making this film, and for almost a decade kept film crews employed here. He essentially was a one man WPA project for the film industry in town–during some of the leanest and hardest years we have seen in a long time.
It was a tough road for Pritzker; he had never made a film before, and though he hired some of the best in the industry to work with him, it was a steep learning curve. At almost a decade in the making, one had to wonder if the film would ever be released. If yes, what does a film with an infinite budget and 10 years of passionate devotion actually look like when it is finished?
I had to know, so when it hit the AMC, Jock and I were there. In the back of my head, I kept musing on another directorial debut that took years to make and was also surrounded by curiosity: Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels.” Is this what sitting in Gruman’s Chinese Theatre was like in 1930?
“You know sweetheart, it is kind of like a mash-up between ‘Deathbed’ and ‘Miles Ahead,’” I commented in the truck on the way home. ‘Deathbed’ was a movie Jock worked on in the very beginning of his career, and like “Bolden!” had a circular route to release. But “Deathbed” did not have anywhere near the resources of “Bolden!” However, both films are essentially shorts stretched into feature-length productions. Neither really have subplots; the creators in both cases had a specific story they wanted to tell and really neither were interested in the additional backstory or complications for supporting characters.
“Miles Ahead,” the 2015 film about Miles Davis that Don Cheadle directed and starred in, shares a lot with “Bolden!” structure wise. The conceit of “Miles Ahead” is that the story we watch is contained within the song Miles Davis plays for us. Like a jazz song, it isn’t necessarily a linear narrative. “Bolden!” follows the first live radio broadcast of Louis Armstrong, played by Reno Wilson. In the Louisiana State Asylum, one of the inmates, Buddy Bolden (Gary Carr) can overhear the concert from the nurses’ station radio. We, the audience, follow the twists of his diseased mind as he listens to the music.
Like a jazz song, there is a central established theme and the narrative splits off for a while to explore an idea (or memory). Then it comes back to the theme and wanders over to look at another part of the story. We see a hero’s tragic journey: a rise to power (in this case musical prowess and innovation), followed by a horrifying fall. There is probably about 45 minutes of actual story in the film. The rest is music and atmosphere—as it should be. How can we have a film about a man who gave his sanity, health and ultimately his life for music and not have the music be the star of the film? It would be like making a film about Stephen Hawking completely devoid of science. Thankfully, Pritzker was incredibly clear: The music is the vehicle, the music is the character, the music is everything.
Wynton Marsalis arranged and performed the music in the film. It seems an appropriate choice, Marsalis has for years discussed Bolden from the bandstand, and as he has said “tried to keep Bolden’s music in the air.” So anyone hearing “Buddy Bolden” play cornet on screen is hearing Marsalis.
Frankly, to hear the music alone on a surround sound system is worth the price of admission. All the remarkable, hypnotically beautiful, and entrancing sounds in the world couldn’t save it if it weren’t a good film. Quite frankly, it is a good film. It is solid film and has remarkable performances. Mr. Wilson’s portrayal of a young Louis Armstrong is mesmerizing; it is so dead-on. Mr. Carr’s Buddy Bolden is someone whose journey is so real, so fraught with struggle and confusion, if audiences can’t empathize with him, well, their hearts are made of stone.
Pritzker hasn’t shied away from the world that pressed upon and forged Buddy Bolden. There is violence, overt racism, both hierarchal daily racism in Jim Crow and the realities of life for women of color at the time. Add to it the solace of alcohol and drugs, and the lure of a better life, and it’s clear how forces conspire to create a power structure designed to dehumanize half the American population. Like many artists, Buddy Bolden’s soul finds within the act of creation the spark and magic to carry our hero forth—still, it is also what ultimately destroys him. Because in addition to his gift, Bolden and the audience are constantly reminded he is a black man in America at the end of the 1800s. He is expendable—his life is tenuous at best. We watch his friends and family all walking on that same knife’s edge, trying to fight to bring him back, but there is only so much they can do.
Film is a visual medium and visually “Bolden!” has so many layers I think I could see it four or five times, and each time peel back a little more to notice, understand and connect the dots. Much like a jazz recording, the first time one listens, it’s eye-opening. Yet, the more its heard, the more it’s understood and put together.
Is this going to go down in film history as the next “Citizen Kane”? Probably not. But it is a beautifully made film, filled with performances that are truthful, captivating and riveting. Is it a film truly celebrating jazz and the power of creation? Yes. Buddy Bolden gave the world something that outlived him and spawned generations of cultural conversation and artistic development. “Bolden!” is a beautiful, heartbreaking look at the creative process and the price he paid for the gift he shared with the world.