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Bolden: A Movie Review And Beyond

Matt Lavelle By

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Bolden’s environment was as rough as his music. In the film we get the environment, but the music isn’t as rough.
Bolden
Directed by Daniel Pritzker
Abramorama; King Bolden LLC
Release Date: May 3, 2019

Bolden is a film about jazz legend and cornetist Buddy Bolden, released on May 3rd, 2019. There was only one theater playing it in Manhattan, all the way on 12th Avenue and 57th St. The author was the only person present there for an 11:50am Monday viewing on May 13th. The film only showed for one week in Brooklyn. Bolden was conceived by a white billionaire and jazz fan, Daniel Pritzker, who turned to Wynton Marsalis for the music and as an adviser, the latter a role he also undertook for Ken Burns' documentary JAZZ (PBS, 2001). Pritzker saw Bolden, in his words, as a way to create a film about the soul of America. Can a white billionaire teach the world about how jazz was created? My interest in the film was hoping to see on screen what I felt Bolden's music was all about. As a trumpet player myself, I wanted to witness the power of the blues on a horn. In the trailer, Bolden is seen playing music that sends a woman into spiritual catharsis. Pritzker pushes what he sees as the sexual aspects within the music, attempting to portray sexuality from another time. He heads directly into racism. In the film he also deals with mental illness in jazz, another subject that demands further research. All of this is delivered in a musical fantasy, somewhat removed from reality, that borders on science fiction through its abstraction.

Bolden largely takes place in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum where Bolden was committed in 1907, at 30 years old. He remained there for the rest of his life until he died in 1931, at 54 years old. Throughout the film he wanders the hospital while most of the inmates/patients are asleep. It seems to be dark and raining outside throughout the film. Bolden is in the last four months of his life and he hears a live radio broadcast of Louis Armstrong through a vent coming from the nurse's office. The music causes him to have flashbacks of his life before confinement. The entire film then follows a back and forth between Bolden in the hospital and extremely vivid flashbacks created with incredible cinematography. There is a loose forward motion narrative, but Pritzker is more interested in creating scenes from turn of the century New Orleans. These moments are when the film is mesmerizing. King Bolden holding court at Funky Butt Hall -just what could that have been like? Pritzker, Marsalis, and Gary Carr as Bolden try to take you there.

Bolden is also seen being forced to severely restrict his music playing at white society events, where entitled white people come across like secret alien lizard's incapable of emotional expression. The film has three white villains that want to destroy Bolden. A Judge Perry played by actor Ian McShane proclaims that the soul of black people must be destroyed. Further flashbacks bring Bolden deep into acts of sexual expression from his and his partner's perspectives. As the film progresses, all of these issues are exacerbated with Bolden losing a battle with schizophrenia. There is one particularly haunting scene where Bolden is challenged by possibly a young King Oliver or Freddie Keppard, and when he goes to play, his cornet has no valves, at least in his mind. No valves, no sound, no music. Bolden's mother Alice and wife Nora love him but are unable to help him during his decent.

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