(To view a trailer for Louis, click here.)
What better way to tell a story about Louis Armstrong as a young boy than by using early 20th century cutting-edge technology: silent film.
That's what director/co-writer Dan Pritzker set out to do with Louis — tell the early story of one of jazz's luminaries solely through pictures and music. Already in pre-production for a biopic titled Bolden! with a twin focus on the earliest legendary figure of New Orleans jazz, Buddy Bolden, and the birth of jazz itself, Pritzker resolved to shoot two movies — one silent — simultaneously.
"Louis came about when I was writing a screenplay about Buddy Bolden and I took my mom to see [Charlie] Chaplin's City Lights with the Chicago Symphony performing the score," says Pritzker. "It was without a doubt the best movie experience I ever had. The challenge of trying to tell a story visually, without dialogue, was compelling. I thought that if I was going to shoot one film, I might as well try to shoot two — the second being a silent film that picked up where Bolden! ended."
Louis depicts a 6-year-old Armstrong (Anthony Coleman) navigating the intricacies of early life in the Big Easy. The 70-minute reverie touches on the biographical in featuring the Karnofskys, who employed Armstrong on their coal wagon and bought him his first cornet; Bolden's commitment to the state insane asylum; and Armstrong's sentencing to the Colored Waifs' Home for firing a pistol. Like all good silent films there is a damsel in distress (Shanti Lowry) and a villainous judge (Jackie Earle Haley), as well as a comic chase through a New Orleans cemetery, a production number featuring dancing ladies of the evening set in a Storyville bordello, and a pocket-picking raccoon.
Pritzker's crew included Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and chief sound technician Carl Rudisill, who could be seen lurking around the set just in case Pritzker needed a microphone.
"The great joke on the set was that [making a silent film] leveled the playing field between me and Vilmos," recalls Pritzker. "He said to me, 'I never made a silent film, I would love to do that.' I think he didn't believe it was really going to be a silent film."
Silent film isn't necessarily accurate as half of the story is told through music, courtesy of a combination of jazz classics by Armstrong and Duke Ellington as well as music by Wynton Marsalis and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a mid-19th century New Orleans concert pianist whose compositions combined European-style virtuosity with distinctively new world themes and rhythms.
The opportunity to participate in Louis was exciting for GRAMMY winner Marsalis.
"The idea of accompanying a silent film telling a mythical tale of a young Louis Armstrong was appealing to me," says Marsalis. "Of course, calling it a silent film is a misnomer — there will be plenty of music, and jazz is like a conversation between the players so there'll be no shortage of dialogue."
Pritzker learned the vocabulary of silent films by watching old movies but also applied his own touches.
"The way I approached making this silent film [was not to] adhere strictly to the lexicon of classic silent films. We applied a lot of modern technique in that regard," explains Pritzker. Besides locations in New Orleans, Louis was largely shot on sound stages in Wilmington, N.C., which is where Pritzker discovered Hardin Minor, who is accredited as "movement, mime and schtick coach."
"I will go to my grave with a place in my heart for Hardin. He really worked with Anthony [Coleman] throughout the whole period to help me pull it off," says Pritzker. "Jackie [Earle Haley] also used Hardin to help him with his shtick and we kept calling it schtick. We called it that on set."
Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad, and a 10-piece ensemble will provide live accompaniment for a series of five special screenings, beginning in Chicago on Aug. 25. Partial proceeds will benefit Providence St. Mel school, a private college-prep school in Chicago that has been a beneficiary of the Pritzker family's philanthropy since its founding. Pritzker, the grandchild of A.N. Pritzker, who created industrial conglomerate Marmon Group and the Hyatt hotel chain, ranked No. 246 on Forbes' 2008 list of the 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $1.9 billion.
Considered a companion piece to Louis, Pritzker's Bolden! is slated for release in 2011. In the meantime, he is already thinking about another film: a biopic on Gottschalk.
"For me, the music going from Gottschalk to Armstrong paints a portrait of the cornerstone of the American musical landscape. That's why Gottschalk worked for me," says Pritzker. "Of all the recordings of Gottschalk, Cecile's [Licad] is far and away the best. It is more uplifting to me. She plays in a much more emotional way."
(Dave Helland is a regular contributor to GRAMMY.com.)