Modern silent films come in all shapes and sizes, but we’re used to seeing them online or at amateur film festivals. However, since The Artist charmed the critics, and the Weinsteins, at Cannes, and Martin Scorsese is serving up Méliès to kids in Hugo, perhaps the day will come when modern silents invade the multiplex, too.
Louis (2010) is definitely helping to put modern silents on the map, but you won’t be seeing it in your local Odeon any time soon, because it is only to be shown with its live musical accompaniment, a score composed by Wynton Marsalis and performed by a hand-picked band of musicians. This is a film all about jazz in fact, set in New Orleans in 1907 – it’s a fictionalised account of the early years of Louis Armstrong, with a few nods to the cinema of the time.
Louis is a companion piece to a sound film, Bolden, which is coming out next year, about the ‘Cornet King’ Buddy Bolden. Both films have been directed and co-written by Dan Pritzker, a billionaire musician turned film-maker, who has certainly hired some big names to help realise his vision – not just Marsalis, but an Oscar-winning director of photography too.
Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond as a modern re-imagining of early silent film, “Louis” is an homage to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women and the birth of American music. The grand Storyville bordellos, alleys and cemeteries of 1907 New Orleans provide a backdrop of lust, blood and magic for 6 year old Louis (Anthony Coleman) as he navigates the colourful intricacies of life in the city. Young Louis’s dreams of playing the trumpet are interrupted by a chance meeting with a beautiful and vulnerable girl named Grace (Lowry) and her baby, Jasmine. Haley, in a performance reminiscent of the great comic stars of the silent screen, plays the evil Judge Perry who is determined not to let Jasmine’s true heritage derail his candidacy for governor.
When Roger Ebert saw a preview of Louis in Chicago, he praised its “energy and wit,” saying: “It’s not a social documentary, and its recreation of New Orleans is certainly on the upbeat side, but then Louis Armstrong was on the upbeat side … What he’d especially approve of might be Marsalis – who took his performances as an inspiration – and the jazz band.”
I have taken a peek at the trailer, and at first glance Louis’s moody colour palette doesn’t look quite like any silent film I’ve seen before – but the Chaplinalike villain, speeded-up chase sequences and some neat physical comedy all recall the silent era. Some of the slick superimpositions and swooping camera movements feel comfortable, too, despite their 21st-century sheen. That said, the raunchy dancing in some scenes is more reminiscent of a Christina Aguilera video than anything I’ve seen in a silent film.
We will be able to judge properly soon, though, as Louis comes to London as part of the London Jazz Festival, with two screenings at the Barbican Arts Centre. This is an exciting opportunity to see a new silent film on the big screen and hear some leading jazz musicians play. Whether the music or the film will shine the brightest remains to be seen.
Louis screens at the Barbican on 13 November 2011 at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets cost between £10 and £25 and are available here. It’s worth pointing out that this film is not suitable for children – it was rated R in the US for sexual content and nudity.