Movie Review – Bolden
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Buddy Bolden was an African-American cornet player. A cornet is similar to a trumpet but smaller. He was born in New Orelans in 1877 and rose to prominence in the first decade of the 20th century. He revolutionized ragtime music and is known to many as the father of Jazz music. Bolden is also known mostly through oral history, as records about him and his family were either lost or non-existent. Only one picture of him with his band is available. That band played at various venues, but Bolden didn’t write his work down onto music sheets and no recordings of his music were ever made. Speculation exists that one recording was done onto a phonograph cylinder but no copies survived his incarceration. In 1907, Bolden suffered a psychotic episode, triggered by alcoholism. At the age of 30, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and sentenced to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum where he stayed for the rest of his life. He eventually died in November 1931. His father died when Bolden was only 6. He had a mother and sister, but no information is available about them. While he was also known for many relations with women, it’s also not clear if he had any children.
Dan Pritzker is the writer and director of this film. Pritzker is a musician himself who began studying Bolden in 2007. Because Pritzker is the heir to a huge hotel dynasty, he was able to finance this film project pretty much all on his own. Given that there is so little official information about Bolden, Pritzker’s film is arguably less a biography than it is a re-creation of the music scene in New Orleans at the time. Wynton Marsalis provides the music. Actually, this is the second time Marsalis provided such music for Pritzker. The first was Pritzker’s Louis (2010), which centered around Louis Armstrong as a kid who was inspired to become a musician by Bolden who was older. A few of the same actors from that film are also present in this one because the time period is the same. The point-of-view is simply switched over from Armstrong as a child to Bolden as an adult.
Gary Carr (The Deuce and Downton Abbey) stars as the adult Buddy Bolden. We don’t get much from him besides the fact that he loves to play the cornet. There are endless shots of him playing the cornet any and everywhere but most especially on a stage in a bar or nightclub. Those endless shots are only occasionally interrupted with snippets that reveal some kind of plot. One of those plots is Bolden’s quasi-romance with a church-going girl named Nora, played by Yaya DaCosta (Chicago Med). It’s not clear if they marry but it seems as though they might have a baby. The other plot is Boden’s relationship with a shady business manager named Bartley, played by Erik LaRay Harvey (Luke Cage and Boardwalk Empire).
The film is edited in such an impressionistic way that whatever narrative Pritzker perhaps had in mind is rendered completely confusing. The general feeling is that the pressure of his success and the paranoia of it as well led Bolden to his eventual psychotic break. There’s also some manipulative racism at play as well that Pritzker weaves into it. Most of it involves underground, bare knuckle brawls that seem only tangentially related to Bolden but somehow integral to his break down. It becomes a weird injection of violence that felt unnecessary.
In Tate Taylor’s Get On Up (2014), the kind of boxing depicted, which was similar to the brawling here, was necessary in that it was true to James Brown’s life and something in which he directly participated. Instead, the brawling here felt like depiction of violence against black bodies just for the sake of it. Bolden’s incarceration was the result of a violent or an abusive act but it has nothing to do with the brawling. Pritzker’s film doesn’t have to be true to life. That would be impossible given that Bolden’s true life-story is mostly blank, so Pritzker has to invent practically everything here, but what’s depicted should connect from one thing to another.
Pritzker does connect some things. He frames this whole thing as a flashback. The flashback concerns an old Bolden already in the insane asylum looking back at his life prior to him being institutionalized. Apparently, before Bolden’s death, Armstrong, portrayed here by Reno Wilson (Good Girls and Mike & Molly), performed a radio broadcast. Whether Bolden actually listened to that broadcast is unknown, but Pritzker contrives that he did. Armstrong did call out Bolden as an inspiration. As the flashbacks roll out, we see how Bolden was perhaps inspired by certain things. Some are silly, such as him as a child lying on the floor and watching women work at a textile mill. Then suddenly, the textile women dance as if in a ballet.
Robert Ri’chard (Chocolate City and The Feast of All Saints) plays George Baquet, a clarinet player who worked with Bolden in 1905. He was a child prodigy who mainly worked in traditional orchestras. His introduction to Bolden helped to push him toward jazz music. In this film, that introduction involved Bolden falling by parachute from a hot air balloon in one of Pritzker’s more imaginative scenes. The transition from orchestral and traditional forms toward jazz is beautifully depicted and the tension of which is beautifully depicted in that scene. Pritzker doesn’t do much beyond that though. George is quickly dispatched after that and we don’t see him ever again.
In that vein, I wish Pritzker had done more to develop the characters who comprised Bolden’s band. Again, according to the one and only photograph of Bolden, we know there were five other people in his band. One of which was Willy Warner, a clarinetist, portrayed here by Breon Pugh. Obviously, there’s little to no information on Warner as there is on Bolden, so it’s probably easier just to have him show up with no explanation, but Pritzker gives him and the other band members nothing to work with. A scene that has Warner climb onto a roof after Bolden is baffling because I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean or what I’m supposed to get from it on a character level. It’s endemic of this entire film, which feels like a series of moments that may or may not connect to a grander impression.
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, brutal violence and drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.
In select cities including Dover, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.