Without a doubt, Bolden is a story that needed to be told. Musician and now film producer Dan Pritzker felt so strongly about this that he became a film director and producer in order to bring the story of the life of New Orleans musician Buddy Bolden, coined the “Father of Jazz,” to the screen. Pritzker discussed the process in an interview with Shadow And Act.
“I was a professional musician and playing a gig in Colorado and a radio guy mentioned he was reading a book about Bolden.” At the time, Pritzker had never heard of Buddy Bolden. “It was as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning,” he recalled. “I said ‘What? Who is this guy?’” He soon learned who Bolden was and understood his important role in American music history. “I see a very clear line,” Pritzker said, “between Bolden, Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z. All the music we all grew up loving, they all really came from that one place!” Apart from what Bolden did musically, Bolden the person was intriguing. “He was poetic yet tragic and typically American. Here was this Black man who changed our world, made anonymous.”
There were a few formidable hurdles he had to clear to make the film, however. Pritzker was a lifelong musician with no training in filmmaking. The other issue was the almost complete lack of available information about cornetist Bolden, who died in a sanitarium in 1931 at the age of fifty-four; a true tragedy considering that Bolden is the creator of America’s original musical art form. It’s hard enough to make a film but doing so as a novice making a fact-based project for which there is no information about the subject, is a Herculean task indeed. Understanding the backstory of the making of Bolden reveals the enormous challenge it presented. It’s standard for films to go back and do reshoots of a few scenes. In this case, the entire film was shot, then reshot!
“It wasn’t the movie I wanted to make. It was difficult for me to look at the footage,” Pritzker explained. “The first go-round was really me learning how to shoot film. I didn’t have it and I set the bar high because it was so important.” Pritzker also used a new lead actor the second go round. Gary Carr (The Good Fight, Downton Abbey) replaced Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Endgame, The Hate U Give) for the final version. Pritzker commented, “I come from the world of musicians and I’ve learned long ago that you may have a great musician working on a tune but if they’re not the right person for the tune, they’re not the right person for the tune. It was a huge learning process for me.”
Given the historical importance of the subject and Pritzker’s inexperience, he has succeeded in creating an aurally and visually lush film about Bolden, about American music history complete with the effort and gravitas it deserves. Pritzker’s experience as a musician and sensitivity to the jazz medium is very evident throughout the film, especially with the musical selections. Celebrated jazz historian and ambassador, musician, and composer Wynton Marsalis was part of the team who composed the music for the film’s soundtrack along with Mark Isham (Blade, Beyond The Lights), one of the most prolific music composers for film and television.
Though it pulls from real-life events, Pritzker doesn’t consider the film a biopic. For him, it’s more of a fact-based re-imagining of Bolden’s life and times. Bolden is non-linear in terms of narrative, moving back and forth through time, delivering to the viewer a series of shifting moods and emotions. At times, like much of the music Bolden created, it is discordant. It’s a film that is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing to watch. Bolden dealt with serious mental health issues his entire adult life and spent much of it in an institution. Pritzker decides to give the audience an impression of who Bolden was, diving into his brilliant yet complex mind, and studiously avoids a traditional paint by numbers rundown of his life. Scenes of a Louis Armstrong performance are dispersed throughout the film. It is an effective method of communicating the significant impact that Bolden had on his musical peers as well as those who followed him. The renowned trumpeter is played to perfection by Reno Wilson (Good Girls), capturing his signature style and ebullience.
To the film’s credit, though there is a reference to Bolden’s extreme dealings with alcoholism and drug use, the viewer comes away with the sense that those were ways of Bolden coping with his traumas. It’s a soft departure from traditional fact-based musical dramas that prioritize the drug use of the musician over his or her mental health. We see the reasons that may have triggered Bolden’s struggle with mental health in a series of disquieting episodes from his childhood, including his father’s death when Buddy was just six years old.
Where Bolden falls short is in its superficial treatment of women and its overemphasis on violence. The violence against Black men and women in Bolden is quite brutal. While in many scenes the actresses are captured exquisitely (a triumph in the film world that is usually lazy when it comes to capturing Black woman beauty on screen), there are too many instances in which violence is inflicted on them in a way that does nothing to illuminate Bolden’s story.
Particularly jarring are scenes of boxing matches, called Battle Royales, that were somewhat popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in New Orleans that may have shaped who Bolden became. The pugilistic competitions were reportedly popular in England during the early 18th century but soon fell out of favor there. They ended up seeing a resurgence as competitions between enslaved and formerly enslaved Black Americans from the late nineteenth through the beginning of the twentieth century. They consisted of a group of about five (could be more) Black men, in a ring with almost no rules, viciously fighting each other. The last man standing, won. Perhaps the most well known literary depiction of these sporting events is in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These bouts were advertised as entertainment for white consumption and in Bolden, they are depicted as such.
Sadly, too much time is spent on the violence and not enough on its connection to who Bolden eventually became. On this subject, Pritzker said, “In the first few drafts of the script there was not a drop of violence. But, this was New Orleans in 1900. It was a very violent place. The violence in the film doesn’t get anywhere close to touching the real violence that went on at the time and even the violence that goes on today. Check out the West Side of Chicago and the South Side. It’s unbelievable! Anyway, I wanted to include violence in an epic fashion as a metaphor for real violence.”
Answering my quizzical look, Pritzker went on to say, “Those fights were staged in a way to subjugate Black men who were formidable fighters but put them in a ring with a dozen guys, they end up looking like clowns in a rodeo and you don’t take them seriously.” It is debatable whether or not metaphors of any kind are needed at this point in history to understand the debased condition of Black people in any of the southern United States just thirty-five years after the legal abolition of slavery and during the thick of the rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. The treatment in Bolden is over the top due perhaps to elements of toxic masculinity as well as a general insensitivity to depictions of brutality on Black people. In other words, no violence would perhaps not have been realistic, but less certainly would have been more.
One of the biggest draws for Pritzker is Bolden’s status as an enigma. He simply has a preference for stories that aren’t already well known. “For instance, the Ray Charles movie,” he states, the actor did a fantastic job but to do a biopic of the guy when every minute of his life is so well-known, I never really liked those. To try and synopsize somebody’s life in two hours, it kind of makes their lives trite.”
Bolden opens May 3.