Young Man with a Silent Horn

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By Donald Sosin

There is a conceit among some young creators of silent films, trying on the genre as a prelude to their big sound feature. They think that silents should look old, faded, out of focus and scratchy. But the new digital restorations that premiered in Bologna last month of the first films by the Lumière brothers demonstrate the astonishing clarity of the earliest motion picture film stock.

Jackie Earle Haley as Judge Leander Perry in a scene from Louis.

Now comes Louis, a silent feature written and directed by Dan Pritzker that actually was made yesterday—give or take. It seems to glow right through the screen and reclaim the power of classic film. Visually stunning—and accompanied by a jubilant soundtrack—Louis imagines a fantasy version of New Orleans in 1907, and follows the exploits of 6-year-old Louis Armstrong in the days just before he begins his long, brilliant career. The absence of dialogue and sound effects means that the music has to do double duty as underscoring and to replace conversation. So inviting Wynton Marsalis and the pianist Cecile Licad to score the film was nothing short of inspired.

The film is set in the tenements, back alleys, cemeteries and bawdy parlors of Storyville, where a variety of scantily-clad ladies rub noses (and other body parts) with gentlemen and politicians. One of the latter turns out to be a very nasty judge, who will stop at nothing to win his bid for the governor’s office. Louis, played by a wide-eyed Anthony Coleman in his screen debut, gets mixed up in the schemes of this character, played with zest by Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, Nightmare on Elm Street) as an homage to Chaplin, although Charlie’s debut on the silver screen did not come until 1914. One of the fantasy sequences involves Haley falling into the clockwork mechanism of a giant voting machine, a nod to Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Pritzker is a professional musician himself (he also happens to be heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune and has a net worth in the billions, according to Forbes), and he shot Louis as a sidebar to a sound film he conceived about Buddy Bolden, another New Orleans trumpet player who figures in the tale,  often called the father of jazz.

“Louis came about when I was writing a screenplay about Buddy Bolden, the first jazz trumpeter of New Orleans, and I took my mom to see Chaplin’s City Lights with the Chicago Symphony performing the score. It was without a doubt the best movie experience I ever had,” Pritzker explains.

Marsalis and Licad have contributed in equal measure to the underscoring. “The idea of accompanying a silent film telling a mythical tale of a young Louis Armstrong was appealing to me,” Marsalis says. “Of course, calling it a silent film is a misnomer. There will be plenty of music, and jazz is like a conversation between the players so there’ll be no shortage of dialogue. I look forward to playing with Cecile. The contrast between Gottschalk’s music and jazz can be a revelation to those unfamiliar with Gottschalk’s music and jazz.”

Louis screens Aug. 30, Apollo Theatre, 253 W. 125th St.; 8, $38.50-$53.50. For more information, visit www.louisthemovie.com.

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