The most preposterous scene in the new movie “Bolden” may not be the one where the eponymous hero is thrown from the gondola of a hot-air balloon and parachutes down blowing his pristine jazz cornet to tempt the picnicking crowds away from his rival John Robichaux's relatively genteel orchestra.
He is styled State Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, but what does the D stand for?
That's because pretty much the entire movie is preposterous, as was only to be expected. Director Dan Pritzker and his collaborators had to make most of it up because so little is known about the life of Charles “Buddy” Bolden.
The opportunity to see a movie about a seminal historical figure from New Orleans is hard to resist, but do not go to this one expecting to find familiar locales and accents. It was shot for the most part in Wilmington, North Carolina. English actors play Bolden and the racist Judge Leander Perry, who, though his name was presumably inspired by the old Plaquemines Parish segregationist boss Judge Leander Perez, is an entire fiction.
So too is the footage that shows Bolden falling from the sky as he performs a clarion solo, but among the few things we know about him is that he and his band played at Lincoln Park in the Gert Town section, where balloon rides were a regular attraction in the early 1900s. Robichaux, an accomplished musician and band leader who was the polished downtown counterpoint to Bolden's earthy uptown exuberance, performed there and at the adjacent Johnson park regularly. So the balloon scene is a flight of fancy with a least a tenuous connection to reality.
George Baquet, who was on clarinet in the Robichaux orchestra in the movie as Bolden materialized like some aerial pied piper, did indeed play with both of them in real life. The movie is accurate too in showing that Baquet could keep playing his clarinet while he disassembled it until only the mouthpiece was left.
Any Baquet family reference will command a lot of interest around here. Not only was George the most gifted of three successful musician brothers, but the family went on to become a major force in the restaurant business. Later scions took up journalism; Dean is editor of The New York Times.
As for what the movie tells us about Bolden, the little bit that is true was already well known; the bulk that is new is made up.
Thus, we have the evil Judge Perry, played by Ian McShane, not only consigning Gary Carr's Buddy Bolden to the Louisiana lunatic asylum in Jackson, but arranging to destroy the cylinder recording he had made with his band. In fact, the fate of the cylinder, if it ever existed, is unknown, and Bolden, in the grips of alcohol-induced psychosis, was committed in 1907 by his mother. Leander Perez at the time was 16. Bolden died in the asylum in 1931, aged 54.
Although there is no Bolden recording, and everyone who heard him play is long dead, a lot of his contemporaries testified to his lung power and improvisational genius, and we may be reasonably sure the movie sound track captures his sound. Pritzker enlisted Wynton Marsalis to record it, which he did by synthesizing the styles of contemporaries King Oliver, Bunk Johnson and the hard-driving cornetist who inherited Bolden's title as king of the New Orleans music scene, Freddie Keppard.
Before they put a fence round the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge, undesirable characters strolled around as they pleased.
In fact, far and away the best part of the movie is close to the end when Bolden, four months from death, is listening to a Louis Armstrong concert on the radio while recalling his own heyday, and Marsalis masterfully recreates the sounds of both.
Of course, the music was bound to be superb with Marsalis in charge. But he is also listed as joint producer of the movie, which comes way short of measuring up. Pritzker could afford to make any movie he wanted — he and his cousin, Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker, belong to the family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain and is worth billions — but the point of this one is hard to discern. Fans of gratuitous sex and violence might like it, however.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.