‘Louis’: Music Over Movie Making

Sometimes, marvelous music makes a mediocre movie seem better than it actually is.

A unique and exciting event was held in Harlem at the Apollo, where a full house of listeners came to see Louis, a modern-day silent film about a long-dead jazz legend. They had been lured by the appearance of Wynton Marsalis performing with an 11-piece band. The subject matter — trumpeter Louis Armstrong — seemed almost incidental.

The conventional imbalance between image and sound in music videos results from extremely sophisticated cinematic techniques often countered by amateurish musicianship and adolescent concerns.

But Louis, the debut effort of filmmaker Dan Pritzker, is not a case of the cart pulling the horse. Rather, this film provides an example of something that filmgoers rarely see: the power of the score to make a film seem far better than it actually is.

Thanks to Marsalis’ music, elements that could be seen as sentimental silent-film clichés often slipped by or were made bearable by something that was never experienced during the actual silent-film era: live music performed by top-shelf players like trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, reedmen Victor Goines and Ted Nash, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Enriquez and drummer Ali Jackson.

Even in the 1920s, the timeless vitality of jazz was not usually heard in those silent-movie theaters. Now and again, musicians like Louis Armstrong could be heard in that movie-theater context, but they were not surrounded by improvising bands filled with superior musicians. That night up in Harlem, the Marsalis band seemed to play with the epic range of feeling and technique that makes an event take on mythic power, which enhanced the quality of the film itself. There was never a band as fine as the one Marsalis led that night at the Apollo.

Though it easily could have been a very dull evening, Monday night at the Apollo was not a loud and lazy act of deadening nostalgia; unamplified, the music was absolutely vibrant, fully alive and ringing with a charisma that the audience probably found unfamiliar.