The difference between homage and pastiche is largely a question of respect. It perfectly possible to pastiche something you don’t care for very much, or don’t understand, whereas a homage aims to be a worthy tribute to the art that inspires it. Louis (2010) is a pastiche. It’s a glossy, fast-paced film, with a charming lead performance from the young actor who takes the title role – and it’s occasionally funny, too – but I didn’t feel the love.
Louis, a “modern re-imagining” of a silent movie, is ostensibly both a tribute to Louis Armstrong, whose early life is mythologised here, and to the films of Charlie Chaplin. These two aims get so terribly bungled that the film shifts its attention away from the young Louis and towards what should be a sub-plot, featuring a villain who looks, and moves, in imitation of Chaplin. The idea of having an actor (Jackie Earle Haley, who is really very good in the role) mimic the Tramp while playing such an unpleasant character is bizarre: he’s a corrupt local judge who is guilty of murder and extortion. We see him attempting to pay off the prostitute who has given birth to his child, and when that fails, trying to suffocate the newborn in question. Adorable.
Louis may be ludicrous, but it very nearly gets away with it. There’s an undeniable pleasure in clocking all the Chaplin references, Vilmos Zsigmond’s back-and-white photography is crisp and the speeded-up chase sequences are a hoot. Yes, the film is set in a deprived quarter of early 20th-century New Orleans, but Louis is designed as a retro fantasy and if it stuck to its comedy guns, it could have been a family-friendly caper. Sadly, however, Louis loses its way very early on.
What might have been a charming film about a young boy’s love for music gets lost when it wanders on to adult territory, specifically the brothel. The scenes inside the bordello are both sanitised and horribly puerile at the same time – the women perform raunchy, anachronistic dance routines in perfectly laundered white petticoats. It’s more like a pop video than a movie in these sequences, but they are enough to give the film its US ‘R’ rating. More problematically, the storyline involving a prostitute going back to work after having an illegitimate baby raises issues that Louis is not sophisticated enough to deal with.
And then there’s the music. The score, written by Wynton Marsalis and featuring many pieces by Armstrong himself and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, is played by a 10-piece band at a volume that goes way beyond “accompaniment” – meaning, at least, you can barely concentrate on the plot holes. There’s rich, squelchy brass in almost every scene, and the tempo rarely takes a breath. You do wonder whether the music was meant to accompany the film or vice versa.
Louis is filmed in widescreen, with looping, extended Steadicam sequences and crane shots – it’s not a perfect replica of a silent film, but it will remind you of one. I don’t mind that it’s “inauthentic” in the slightest. Modern silents should come in all forms, and the idea of a silent biopic of a musician with a live score is an inspired one. The problem with Louis is that it gets distracted from what it does best, and a Chaplin pastiche is no substitute for the real thing.