A pastiche in both senses of the word, Dan Pritzker’s faux silent film Louis apes a vast array of styles and modes to tell its story of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans childhood, some drawn from the language of pre-sound moviemaking, some bearing no resemblance whatsoever to early cinema. Designed as a touring show with five performances in five major cities to be accompanied by a Wynton Marsalis-led orchestra, the film necessarily does away with a coherent vision in favor of glossy spectacle. Thus, comic pantomime alternates with melodrama and dance numbers, 1910s depth staging gives way to elaborate Steadicam tracking shots that not even F.W. Murnau could have managed, and the young Armstrong’s search for his first cornet shares screen space with plotlines involving angelic prostitutes and evil politicians.
The guiding principle seems to be, hey, whatever works. Or rather doesn’t, since while Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography lends an appealing sheen to many of the scenes (which makes it seem at times as if we’re watching a newly discovered film from the late 1910s, subject to a radical digital restoration/muted colorization), this look is just as often scrapped in favor of CGI-aided skies and superimposed fantasy sequences of Armstrong floating over a montage of street life. But since this movie isn’t really about Louis so much as the myth of a certain era (early 20th century in New Orleans and its racier corners), the filmmakers refuse to be limited by a glamour-killing adherence to strict pre-1927 cinematic techniques, particularly when it comes to the numerous depictions of the city’s brothels, where half-naked black prostitutes engage in elaborate dance sequences with slumming white patrons.
Actually, the film is little more than a compendium of bad ideas, many of them centered on evil politician, Judge Perry (Jackie Earle Haley), who is first introduced shaving his grotesque beard with the aid of an angled mirror in a shot that gives off more than a whiff of German expressionism. After an image-enhancing trip to the barber, Perry emerges looking like Charlie Chaplin, which allows the filmmakers to recreate the famous falling-through-the-gears sequence from Modern Times, but otherwise seems as pointless as most of the rest of the film’s tossed off allusions. (Semi-contemporary topicality comes from the fact that the gears in question belong to a Diebold voting machine and that the scene is preceded by a reference to hanging chads—only a decade too late).
But this sense of blissful belatedness is often the principle feature of uncritical pastiche and Louis is in every way a tribute to regressive nostalgia. A set of economic circumstances in which white privilege freely purchased black pussy is lovingly revived and rendered a good time for all. An incoherent jumble of styles is employed because they’re all signifiers of pastness, never mind what actual function they once served. And worse, for jazz fans, the film posits America’s great indigenous music as a dead art, a line of thinking long in tune with producer/composer Marsalis’s neo-conservative creed that posits 1950s hard bop as the music’s final evolution. By picking one of jazz’s first superstars as their subject (a man far more known to the general public for crooning harmless fare like “What a Wonderful World” than for his groundbreaking late-‘20s recordings) and hiring Marsalis to craft a soundtrack perfectly in keeping with the glossy pastiche of the visuals (the prerecorded score that accompanied the press screening freely mixed Mingus and other modernists with New Orleans style tunes), the filmmakers have caved to the prevailing mindset and relegated jazz music—along with the silent film—to the aesthetic graveyard, to be revived only when we desire the lying comforts of nostalgia.