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Louis (2010) ****

August 26, 2010

written by: Dan Pritzker, Derick Martini, Steven Martini & David N. Rothschild
produced by: Jon Cornick, Michele Tayler, Derick Martini, Steven Martini & Dan Pritzker
directed by: Dan Pritzker
rated R (for some sexual content & nudity)
70 min.
U.S. release date: August 25-31, 2010 (special engagement)
There was an enthusiastic buzz in the air last night just outside Chicago’s Symphony Hall, beneath a beautiful evening sky. A crowd was gathering to take in the world premiere of “Louis: A Silent Film with Live Musical Performance by Wynton Marsalis and Cecile Licad”, a fictional tale inspired by Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans childhood.  I attended, courtesy of my friend, Marcus Printup, a talented trumpet player who is part of the fantastic 10-piece jazz ensemble accompanying on exclusive five-city tour.  The audience experienced a unique even as exuberant live music brought to life something new, a modern silent film.
Silent classics have played at this landmark venue before, but this was something special. Chicago’s own, Dan Pritzker directed the film as an homage to not only Armstrong, but also, as the program reads, “Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women, and the birth of American music.”  After Pritzker viewed a live accompaniment by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of Chaplin’s “City Lights” years ago, he was inspired to make his own silent film.
Bringing his love for music and history together, he wrote a story about six-year old boy
named Louis (Anthony Coleman) trying to survive amid poverty-stricken New Orleans circa 1907.  He works with the Karnosky brothers (played by Steven and Derick Martini, also served as producers), selling stone coal from a cart in the streets and entertains himself with a beat-up old bugle. If only someone could teach him how to play a real trumpet. Louis remains remarkably upbeat, displaying a warm yet defiant spirit, despite living with his prostitute mother. His love for her and his younger sibling is evident as he longs for a better life for them all.
A fateful encounter in the street, introduces him to Grace (Shanti Lowry), and her baby, Jasmine (Mariah Bell), a lovely yet sad young woman who is a popular attraction at Mahogany Hall. Unfortunately, Grace’s connection to the evil Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley) could jeopardize his aggressive campaign for Governor and he decides to take matters into his own hands. Helping Grace and Jasmine any way he can, Louis runs into a variety of colorful characters.  From the lively Storyville bordellos, to the dangerous alleyways and the labyrinth cemeteries, Louis becomes our guide through a humorous and harrowing time in America that gave birth to an iconic jazz legend.
“Louis” has been screened for critics earlier this summer with a different soundtrack and I can’t imagine it having the same immersive impact. This is how silent film was meant to be watched,  hearing live musicians and seeing emotive actors tell a story in a cohesive manner. The marriage of Marsalis, Licad and their ensemble to the images onscreen had a seamless flow that was both poignantly contemplative and foot-tappingly alive. In a live accompaniment of a silent film, it is left to the musicians to be the voice of the actor, to be that actor, and that is precisely what I witnessed on this night.
As young Louis, eleven-year old Coleman transmitted an undeniable charm that endeared viewers. Haley, with his Chaplinesque body language, was appropriately the most energetic and comical on-screen presence. It was clear that Lowry’s background in professional dancing was a perfect fit for the role of good time girl Grace and her soulful eyes provided just the right connection to the character.
As invigorating as the musicians were, applause must be given to the actors for bringing us back to a time when characters were portrayed in silence. Relying on broad physicality and vast expressions, it was obvious these actors had a fun and probably exhausting time with these roles.  All of the actors, including fine supporting work by Michael Rooker, Anthony Mackie and Delfeayo Marsalis, delivered great comic timing in their respective roles. It was fun seeing actors familiar for their other work, be it film or TV, in a medium we would rarely see them in.
The film was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina and on location in New Orleans by Academy-Award winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” & “The Deer Hunter”). It was filmed in color yet made to look like a worn back-and-white picture, adding the right grain and texture for the period. Zsigmond not only captures the energy and emotion of the characters but also employs a good deal of swirling overhead shots, often in tight spaces like the energetic interior of a bordello.
Pritzker also employed the distinctive talent of choreographer Hinton Battle , since much of the work in a silent film required calculated movement and dance sequences to progress the story. The choreography became just as noticeable as the live music, often making the other pop in synchronicity. Battle production make the music, co-written by Marsalis (contributing his own compositions) and Licad (playing the music of 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottshalk), come even more alive through the vivid movement seen on the big screen. 
The entire production played tonight at Max M Fisher Music Center in Detroit, if  you can catch the shows, you will have an unforgettable time. The rest of the shows are in Bethesda, MD (August 28th) at the Strathmore Center, New York City (August 30th) at the Apollo Theatre and closing it out at Keswick Theatre (August 31st) in Philadelphia. PA. In the coming week, all of the musicians, including Sherman Irby, Victor Goines, Ted Nash, Kurt Bacher, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez, Ali Jackson Jr., and conductor Andy Farber, will be recording a soundtrack for the yet-to-be-announced DVD release of “Louis”.  But, the best way to see these talents converge is performing live.
The evening in Chicago ended with a ballroom reception, where the audience were able to show their gratitude to the director, musicians and some of the actors. A portion of the proceeds from the five concerts will go to Providence Saint Mel School in Chicago in honor of Paul J. Adams III, the founder of the school. This isn’t the last foray into silent film, be on the lookout for “Bolden” , also filmed by Zsigmond, next year. A film starring Mackie as Buddy Bolden (hailed as the inventor of jazz) as well as Lowry and Wendell Pierce. I only hope that film will get the same live accompaniment treatment as this fine silent film did.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. mATtHEw gRAmITh permalink
    August 27, 2010 1:08 am

    That looks great! I love the color palette. Perfect for a modern silent. I’m disappointed that I can’t see it, but happy that it exists!
    What a lucky guy you are to have got to see it with live accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis and Cecile Licad! Very, very cool.

  2. windi permalink
    August 30, 2010 9:24 pm

    this sounds too cool…hopefully I can find it on Netflix soon! It’s great you had a chance to see it the way you did! Lucky guy!


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