Now streaming on Vudu, Amazon Prime and YouTube, is “Bolden”(2019). The film is directed by Daniel Pritzker. “Bolden” attempts to tell the story of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the cornetist largely credited with the invention of jazz.
Reviews for the movie have not been great. However, Bolden’s legend deserves to be discussed. Few details are known, but the little that is known is harrowing and poignant, and remarkable when it comes to Bolden’s actual playing.
Some of the criticism stems from the movie’s non-linear storyline. While non-linear narratives are not always effective, and certainly here there would have been some benefit to simply telling things in a straightforward way, most of the story is clear.
While some critics have taken the film to task for its impressionistic approach, worse liberties have been taken in movies. And, for a subject about whom little is known, the film’s organization makes it relatively easy to figure out what has happened. Although, a few more time stamps might have been helpful.
“Bolden”: a star-studded cast
“Bolden” was released May 3, 2019. And for the star-studded cast, the fanfare was relatively quiet. Which is too bad. The movie showcases some familiar faces in roles that almost no one expected. For example, the biggest surprise might be Gary Carr, that audiences might remember from HBO’s “The Deuce.” On that show he plays a pimp who manipulates and abuses the prostitutes who work for him. The character is not without his own emotional fragility, even as he tries to use others’ against them. With that in mind, Carr is practically perfect as Bolden who falls into drugs, madness and erratic behavior.
Another familiar face from the small screen is Reno Wilson. The actor known for playing Mike’s fellow police officer on the television show “Mike and Molly,” and a long-suffering and ethically compromised husband on “Good Girls,” on which he also plays a police officer. In “Bolden,” Wilson shines as Louis Armstrong. His smile and affability come through, even in the face of startling racism.
In addition, YaYa DaCosta, from television’s “Chicago Med,” plays Bolden’s wife, Nora (talk about long-suffering). Erik LaRay Harvey plays Bartley, the businessman who presents Bolden with the idea of recorded music on a wax cylinder. Bartley has other ventures, too. He feeds the appetites of white racists and organizes primitive boxing matches or battle royales of sorts to appease them. He gathers the size of black men they to see fight. Bartley is also charged with keeping Bolden in line. Previously, Harvey appeared as the menacing underboss Dunn Purnsley, with Michael White on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Ian McShane and Breon Pugh are also key cast members.
“Bolden”: Why this story matters
“Bolden” matters because it links different areas of American and black American life. Bolden’s story takes place in Louisiana. He was born in 1877 and started his own band in 1897. The limited autonomy he had stemmed from his popularity as a musician. But ultimately, even that didn’t keep him from being declared indigent and insane.
The movie’s non-linear organization allows viewers to see how black Americans lived in Louisiana, post-slavery. There are studies in contrasts: ragtime versus jazz, tan-skinned blacks versus dark-skinned blacks, black Baptists versus black Episcopalians, and so forth. Further, the way that jazz grew from the blues, from Gospel and the work songs of chain gangs are all touched on as part of the title character’s memories.
Knowing the importance of jazz and the traditions it grew out of, audiences will understand how important this movie is. Bolden’s legacy is almost mythical. There is one surviving photograph of him, and seemingly his music survived because of the men he played with remembered the things he would do. Even his one rumored wax cylinder recording has never been found.
Bolden survived cruelty and escaped mundane expectations to focus on his art. That he found success at all under the conditions in which he lived is remarkable. But the lack of information about the man his contemporaries called “The King,” will make music fans want to learn more.