Docu-drama about genesis of jazz is like cinematic fever dream
“Bolden” isn’t your grandmother’s biopic, though it might be your great-grandma’s — if she’d been black and present at the beginning of American jazz.
The docu-drama isn’t linear, or completely understandable, either.
But it is fascinating.
At least I found it so, from the first moment of the 108-minute film to its last, throughout what washed over me like a visual symphony of dark, darker and darkest images.
As in hallucination, fever dream, allegory or simply the director’s concept of a tragic, mythic horn player most folks never heard of despite his having purportedly invented jazz.
The film, which fills in more blanks with imaginative sequences than it deals in factual life history (since virtually nothing’s known about Charles “Buddy” Bolden and no recordings of his cornet sounds exist), features never-ending vibrant, brassy, loud music interspersed with episodic (and sometimes repetitive) scenes of the tormented musician’s life as imagined by filmmaker Dan Pritzger, who took 12 years to finish (and reshoot about half of it after the original star, Anthony Mackie, dropped out).
Composer/exec producer Wynton Marsalis, a New Orleans-born jazz giant who plays the masterful soundtrack trumpet as he fancied New Orleans-native Borden would, arranged the music and overlaid some idealized modern sounds on what is fundamentally a montage of improvised blues, gospel, ragtime, folk melodies and extracts from melodies played in whorehouses.
He superimposed all that on an old march beat.
The film depicts a real radio performance by Louis Armstrong (skillfully imitated by Reno Wilson) as well as flashes and flashbacks of Bolden’s life (portrayed with appropriate doses of angst, agony and joy by Gary Carr).
But the most memorable if apocryphal scenes are owned by the movie’s eponymous figure who’s always larger than life (and, in fact, known as The King).
- His wandering (for nearly a quarter of a century, actually) through the long, dark corridors of an insane asylum, apparently suffering from alcohol-induced schizophrenia and pondering the passionate, ecstatic highlights and demon-riddled lowlights of his history.
- Bolden, a womanizer who was born in 1877 and died in the asylum in 1931, descending on an upscale white garden party via parachute after being pushed from a hot-air balloon by his malevolent African American manager.
- The musician listening as a boy, also probably factitiously (unverifiably, for sure), and being swept up in the rhythmic sounds of sewing and laundry machines in a massive sweatshop his mom toils in.
- Pairings of black men with numbers painted on their backs brutally beating one another while rich Caucasians bet on who will survive.
- Naked black women cradling their infants as Bolden contemplates his impending fatherhood.
- Cops beating black men just because they can.
- Ethereal toe-dancing in the midst of an otherwise bleak scenario.
- Booze-guzzling and drug-injecting that relieve everyday physical and psychological pain for Borden (and his wife).
The almost plotless, low-on-dialogue, sometimes difficult-to-watch-because-of-its-brutality film, which was shot in New Orleans, Atlanta and Wilmington, zig-zags so much — indeed like a good improvisational musician — that it’s sometimes difficult to follow. I quickly, however, became so immersed in the music that my semi- confusion lost its impact.
If you’re not a jazz or history buff, you might hate this docu-drama, the screenplay of which Pritzger screenplay collaborated with David Rothschild. But it’s possible that, like me, you’ll ultimately find it a one-of-a-kind exploration of a mythical figure that’s, in the final analysis, 100 percent intriguing.
Its striking images and impressive musical strains are certainly apt to linger a long time — partly because of their power and partially because of the racism and white supremacism becoming more and more prevalent in today’s Trump-wracked world.
My wife, in fact, had dreams the entire night after we saw the film — about the music and its more positive elements.
“Bolden” is playing at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 4th St. Information: 415-454-1222 or 415-454-5813, or firstname.lastname@example.org.