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All that Jazz: Reviewing Bolden Biopic

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

I just watched Bolden, the ambitious biopic, by Dan Pritzker, and you should too. Now streaming on various services, it hasn’t received many glowing reviews, a possible reason being that not much is known about Buddy Bolden, not even what he sounded like. However, I do disagree with reviews that deny any merit at all to the film, I see plenty to appreciate and some things that were fantastic. Plot and story line aside, the film was visually moving, and Wynton Marsalis’s recreation of the Bolden’s sound was truly impressive. The late Miles Davis once said, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” and if you keep this is mind, you just might see a hidden gem.

Herbie Hancock notably said “Jazz is the greatest of all human expressions,” he goes on to say “Jazz, we’re constantly in the moment, creating in the moment.” In other words, it’s a conversation not only between the musicians but the audience and their feelings, a true shared experience. To me, Bolden (film), is not unlike a Jazz tune. A conversation about the roots of the most American musical movements which includes the feelings and emotions of life, love, art, and struggle.

The formate of the film provides a startling contrast between a musician’s accomplishments and demons. The opening scene starts towards the end of Bolden’s life in a Louisiana asylum, we can hear Louie Armstrong playing on a radio in the distance. It then quickly moves into flashbacks and intercuts between the beginning and end of his distinguished career. The tale of a once great musical hero who battles an internal struggle and eventually falls victim to his mental condition is certainly not new to the music field. However, the significance of Bolden’s notoriety in his time, the curious absence of any surviving recordings, and the glorious replication of pre-Armstrong New Orleans Jazz only adds to the mystique and legend of Buddy Bolden.

The mysteriousness of Bolden’s sound was not lost on Wynton Marsalis, who had to develop a composite sound for the film based on the three horn players who were most influenced by Bolden - Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, and King Oliver. It was a truly commendable achievement on Marsalis’s behalf, essentially conducting musical archaeology for historically appropriate performance practices. The end product is a sound that is raw, bright, belligerently loud, and distinctly New Orleans. Marsalis said Bolden would often hold a note to the end of his breath, playing strong leads, ”I tried to just take the kind of extremes I feel that he probably played with."

Marsalis creates a sound that blasts, moves, and invokes the very roots of the jazz idiom. Along with the additional allure of what Bolden’s sound could have been, definitive accuracy aside, the dialogue that Marsalis opens up is one of true academic value.

Cinematographer, Neal Norton and colorist Mike Sowa, create equally stunning images. Pritzker said in an interview with post magazine, “Our influences were more paintings than cinema. I love movies, but sculpture and painting really informed this. I was living in Florence, Italy, when I rewrote this version, so I was surrounded by the works of some of the greatest painters and sculptors in history, and it was fitting as I was trying to create this allegory. So Neal and I’d look at tons of paintings there and also at photos by Sally Mann, who uses black and white so beautifully, and we’d discuss the use of black space in her large-format prints and chiaroscuro in Renaissance painting.”

An exercise in keeping an open mind, creativity, and exploring the beginning of Jazz, Bolden should be seen and heard. A true visual album that puts the name Buddy Bolden on the lips of people who might never have been exposed to Jazz roots earlier than Louise Armstrong, and it contributes to the conversation of jazz and its development.

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