"Louis" A Silent Movie with Live Accompaniment at the Keswick Theatre
August 31, 2010
The Keswick Theatre returned to its roots with a twist. The elegant music venue in suburban Philadelphia built in 1928 as a movie and vaudeville house was one of the five cities hosting a showing of the silent film "Louis." But this time the old theatre organ that still sits stage right was silent. Tonight, the music was provided by famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad, and an outstanding ten-piece jazz orchestra whose members consisted of many veterans of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The film, directed by musician and Hyatt Hotel heir Dan Pritzker, and the musicians were on a five-city tour where they have played to capacity audiences and standing ovations. It was a lovely evening indeed with a performance that dazzled the eyes, ears, and emotions.
"Louis" is a fictional story very loosely based on the young life of Louis Armstrong. Six- year old Louis is played admirably by Anthony Coleman who, like the other actors, had to convey meaning through his facial expressions and his exaggerated as well as nuanced body language. The actors were all helped in their work by Marsalis' perfectly timed arrangements and musical score ably directed by Andy Farber. Aside from Marsalis' original compositions, the score also included arrangements of Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and others.
In a brilliant move by Pritzker and Marsalis, the early jazz tunes were interspersed with beautiful piano arrangements by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the mid-19th century New Orleans-born Creole composer who many credit with a type of proto-jazz sound that pre-dated ragtime. While Gottschalk's music was undeniably classical, there are moments in his pieces that catch the ear with what sounds like the syncopation of ragtime. Gottschalk, who was inspired by Creole musicians as well as his travels into the Caribbean and South America, was able to infuse his compositions with the sounds he encountered. While known by only a few in the jazz world, many feel that Gottshalk was the missing link between classical and ragtime that evolved into jazz when it was improvised and played with blues undertones, and then given swing by Armstrong and others. In a sense, tonight's performance was about two men named Louis, both of whom had a profound impact on American music. Licad expertly played the Gottschalk tunes with feeling and emotion that left the audience speechless from its beauty and the realization of Gottschalk's influence on early jazz as the two musical forms were played on the same stage.
The film itself was beautifully filmed in sepia tones with many tricks from the silent film era including fast-motion chase scenes and overacting to convey an emotion. An occasional dialogue slide would fill in the gaps when more explanation was needed. The color palette of the clothing and the sets of bordellos and early New Orleans street scenes were stunningly beautiful to the eye. While campy and Keystone Coppish at times, that was exactly the point as the film paid homage not only to Armstrong, but the silent film, film music, and Charlie Chaplin. The film has a typical silent film plota beautiful damsel in distress played coquettishly by Shanti Lowry, a villain played in spot-on Chaplinesque style by Jackie Earle Haley, the corrupt Louisiana politician, and the hero played by Coleman as Louis. Many other supporting actors rounded out the cast that included musician, madams, prostitutes, and politicians, and included a cameo performance by Delfeayo Marsalis as Professor Davis, the music professor who inspired Armstrong at the Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans. Inspired choreographed dance sequences filmed in one-camera motion style as well as a fantasy dream sequence added a beautiful artistic quality to the film.
The films ten-piece orchestra included Sherman Irby, Victor Goines, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Kurt Bacher, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez, Ali Jackson Jr., and conductor Farber. Each of them are excellent musicians in their own right, and together they were stunning as they accompanied this film in the dark for seventy-minutes. The band also started the show with two numbers before the film and finished with an exhilarating encore of "Tiger Rag" that brought the audience to their feet for a standing ovation. To have this level of musicians together on one stage was nothing short of extraordinary. Marsalis has assembled a group that takes this music to near perfection.
To those who were not able to experience "Louis" live, the band is near completion of the soundtrack for what may be a DVD release of the film. While it will not be the same as seeing the film on the big screen with a live band in an old movie house, it should satisfy those who wish they could have been there. Marsalis, Pritzker, the actors and the musicians provided this audience with an experience they will not soon forget. Being in the Keswick with its ornate stage and its history of hosting similar films generations ago made the experience that much more memorable. Perhaps a new era of silent films is in our future, and the next may come from Pritzker and Marsalis themselves as they put the finishing touches on their next silent film, "Bolden" based on the life of trumpeter and first jazz player Buddy Bolden. We should all look forward to its release.