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Jazz Film 'Bolden' Mixes Fact And Fiction To Capture A Legendary Bandleader

May 10, 2019
Originally published on May 14, 2019 10:03 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Bolden" tells the story of the legendary early jazz band leader Buddy Bolden. He's portrayed by Gary Carr, whose other roles include playing a mildly jazzy singer on "Downton Abbey" and a menacing pimp on HBO's "The Deuce." Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, keeps a close eye on jazz movies and has this review.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Charles Buddy Bolden was the original jazz hero. A New Orleans cornet player at the turn of the last century, the African American Bolden was famous for playing loud and earthy blues, his shirt open to expose a red flannel undershirt. Some called him King Bolden. He captivated women and eventually cracked up, spending the last 24 years of his life in a mental hospital. Bolden was jazz's first mythic figure, who burned so bright he burned himself out. Decades later, jazz researchers heard a lot of hearsay about him, which they duly repeated as fact, including stories later discredited. He hadn't, for example, parachuted out of a hot air balloon as a promotional stunt.

Director Dan Pritzker's film "Bolden" freely mixes fact and myth. In the movie, Buddy does jump from that balloon, and it makes up still more stuff. The framed story leaves plenty of room for riffing on the bare facts. In 1931, an older and adult Buddy thinks back on and tries to piece together his old glory days. It's a life scene in fragments, shifting back and forth between Buddy's dark present and brilliant past. Within 1931, it shifts between Buddy's gloomy hospital ward and a bright New Orleans ballroom. There, Louis Armstrong is doing a live broadcast, which Bolden overhears on a nurse's radio. Louis is well-impersonated by Reno Wilson. His growl is one more ghostly voice in Buddy's head.

"Bolden" is a movie of striking set pieces. There's that hot air balloon sequence and a dreamlike factory where young Buddy hears his first glimmering of syncopation and where seamstresses dance like ballerinas. We see Buddy teach his men the interlocking rhythms that fuel his conversational music. And there's a fantasy duet between Bolden and Armstrong across time, like a jazz riff on "The Lake House." The glittering fragments mirror the long intermittent production of the film, starting back in 2007 with a different cast.

Much as the action cross cuts and leaps across time and space, it's easy to track. Shallow-focused cinematography, with crisp images sliding into a blur in the same frame, evokes Buddy's struggle to hold on to reality even as it leads the viewer's eye. It's very stylish, and there's lots of reasonably authentic early jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOLDEN")

WHITEHEAD: Since the real Bolden made no records, musicians and critics imagine his style according to taste. Musician Pops Foster, who'd heard him, said he played nothing but blues and all that stink music. And he played it very loud. But Bolden could play sweet, too. In the film, his cornet sound is supplied by Wynton Marsalis. And movie Buddy is more virtuoso than battering ram, more like Wynton. When an upstart horn player challenges him, Buddy brushes him back with sheer technique. The first time white listeners hear him, they literally come running, primed by good promotion. Women are drawn to him. He keep seeing the same beautiful faces in the crowd. A personal muse turns up everywhere.

Bolden is played by English actor Gary Carr, who brought disturbing intensity to the pimp C.C. on HBO's "The Deuce." But off the bandstand, Carr's Buddy is a curiously muted figure. Even his red undershirt has toned down - tasteful, like something from The Gap. Bolden doesn't control his destiny. His increasingly demanding manager puts him in front of white audiences where he has to restrain himself, making his jazz even more urgent back home at Funky Butt Hall. That manager ultimately answers to the man at the top of the local racist food chain, an imperious and windy judge, a part made to order for Ian McShane. He finally reaches down to confront Buddy himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOLDEN")

IAN MCSHANE: (As Judge Perry) You come from nothing.

GARY CARR: (As Buddy Bolden) I come from the same place as you.

MCSHANE: (As Judge Perry) There is nothing the same for you and me, and that ain't never gonna change. You come from nothing, raise your head, get people together like you're some kind of - you think we're going to let that happen? Let you incite a godless crowd?

CARR: (As Buddy Bolden) Don't like what I play, don't listen.

MCSHANE: (As Judge Perry) No one ever will.

WHITEHEAD: As in life, Bolden's mental collapse is fairly abrupt. And "Bolden" the movie loses its grip in the last act. The judge's minions flood the black community with dope decades too early. In 1906, when Bolden went mad, you could buy heroin at the pharmacy. And Buddy's freedom music is deemed a threat to the white power structure, which is taking poetic license pretty far. In reality, there's no evidence white New Orleans ever heard King Bolden or noticed he existed. His music never made the papers. Having movie Bolden get crushed by larger political forces unwittingly diminishes the man. It turns the King into a pawn in his own story.

BIANCULLI: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviewed the movie "Bolden." His book about jazz movies, titled "Play The Way You Feel," is due out next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.