Louis, Christian Marclay, Ryoji Ikeda & Laurie Anderson
Louis: with music by Wynton Marsalis
The Apollo Theater
August 30, 2010
It could be argued that certain problems are encountered when a live band plays musical accompaniment to a silent movie. In the old days, a musician's role was fairly functional. The aim was to lurk in the background, providing suitable sonic shading. If the players became too noticeable, they could be accused of not completing their stated mission.
In the modern world of now, when players have been increasingly drawn to the realms of filmic soundtracking, it's become expected that they should make more of a visible mark. After all, the live musicians might often be specifically providing the draw for a show's punters. With the unveiling of Louis at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, matters became even more complex. This is a movie that's heavily indebted to the language of vintage silent features, but it happens to be brand new, and oddly modernistic in some of its stylistic tactics.
Then, there's the presence of Wynton Marsalis at the Apollo, an event which would pull in the crowds regardless of whether a movie was involved. The music for Louis also featured the pianist Cecile Licad (playing pieces by the Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk), and its primary aim is to re-create the sepia sounds of the 1920s and '30s. The pair were joined by a ten-piece band, all transfixed by their monitor screens for maximum synchronisation purposes. Most of its members were drawn from the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Louis is directed by Dan Pritzker, and shot by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. It stars Anthony Coleman as the young Louis Armstrong, a poignant comedian for one so young. It's set in the New Orleans of 1907, and is a companion piece to Pritzker's Bolden, which will be released in 2011.
As if to satisfy the possible audience urge for simply watching a band, the players warmed up the evening (as if conditions weren't sweltering enough already) by playing a few mood-establishing pieces prior to the lights dimming. Following a brief pause whilst the usual technical problems were surmounted, the full-length feature commenced.
The concept behind Louis is that its events are inspired by the childhood of Louis Armstrong, but there's no attempt at factual veracity. It's an archetypal representation of the times before jazz music lost its overt connection with sexual fluids. And also the times when jazz was specifically music for dancing. Both the copulation and the footwork can still happen today, but they no longer represent the central thrust of the music.
Anyway, much of the movie's action unwinds in a whorehouse. This creates ample opportunity for dance routines, as jazz combos were often on hand to provide hot sounds for hot liaisons. Such choreographed sequences provide the movie's core, impressive on a technical level, as well as being frequently amusing. The black'n'white $$$$-driven sexual commingling dynamic of yore has possibly been swept under the rug nowadays, but here it offers the chance to mix laughter with dismay. It's slapstick with sinister undertones.
The mute is an all-powerful device for suggesting sleaze, disease, booze, drugs, depravity and other good times. Marsalis and crew were overusing their flapping rubber, but we certainly weren't complaining: the slurs, splutters, smears, streaks and fearsome cries helped to engorge any stray swinging members.
On one level Louis acts like a mere music video, but on another it's poking around in some interesting social areas, commenting on poverty, racism, hypocrisy, hopelessness and transcendent achievement, often in the same breath. Armstrong the child is like unto some floating presence, downtrodden but strangely spiritually aloft. He and his horn are capable of solving any problem, at least while we're all under the spell of the movie theatre. There's a sentimentality that's continually stopping to observe itself, then self-consciously delivering a sharp wake-up slap.
What the music might lack in precise connection with visual events, it gains in period pinpointing and sheer electric charge. Perhaps there is a deliberate avoidance of making obvious sound effects, although there are a few moments of violence that are actually linked to percussive strikes. Interestingly, much of the solo action whilst Armstrong is first falling in love with his horn was provided by Wycliffe Gordon's enraged trombone. Other members of the ensemble included Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Victor Goines and conductor Andy Farber. Marsalis himself didn't rise up to dominate very often, and Licad's role was equivalent to the old parlour pianist, pertly dramatic, emphatically ringing, but sometimes subverting the style with sudden jumpy clusters.
The Whitney Museum Of American Art
September 1-25, 2010