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Bolden (2019) - Movie Review

At the start of this movie, Bolden is credited as the 'inventor of jazz'.

It's true that he was a pioneer of the jazz genre.

Jazz, as we know it, probably wouldn't exist and artists such as Louis Armstrong wouldn't have had a chance to shine.

However, very little is known about the jazz cornetist, except that he was an incredible and popular musician and that he was placed in a psychiatric asylum due to suffering from acute alcoholic psychosis in 1907, where he stayed until his death at the age of 54.

If you want to know more about Bolden and other jazz cornetists who helped to shape the jazz genre click here to read my Kings of the Cornet article.

No recordings of his music have survived either and any information about Bolden is unsubstantiated and more like legends than facts.

So how do you go about creating a film on a person we know very little about?

The 2019 'biographical' drama 'Bolden', has attempted to achieve this by taking the little we know about Bolden and weaving it into a plausible storyline to provide a glimpse of what his life may have been like - so basically it's like 10% fact and 90% fiction.

Is it worth a watch?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: bung some popcorn in the microwave and keep on reading to find out what you're getting yourself into with this film.


Wynton Marsalis' masterful music

Wynton Marsalis both composed and performed this incredible soundtrack, which is nothing short of a masterpiece.

If you are a fan of Marsalis (why wouldn't you be, the man is a genius) you will adore the music in this film.

Wynton shows exactly why he is a master of both the cornet and the trumpet in this film, as he captures the loud, raw and rather brash tone that Bolden was known for, as well as showing the more mellow tones that a cornet is capable of.

His trumpet playing for Louis Armstrong's scenes is just simply sublime and although he has tried to emulate Armstrong's playing, it is Marsalis' unmistakable tone that gives him away.

Bolden is an emotionally turbulent film and the soundtrack complements this perfectly to convey so many different moods, from vibrant pieces during Bolden's performance scenes, to slower, moving works that create a feeling of melancholy when Bolden's life and mental strength start to spiral out of control.


Bolden vs Brassed Off

'Bolden' has managed to achieve what 'Brassed Off 'didn't in terms of acting.

If you're going to pick actors to portray musicians, ensuring they look the part when playing an instrument is, well...instrumental!

Let's be honest, some of the 'playing' from the actors in 'Brassed Off' left a lot to be desired and I forgave them, given that most of them had never touched a brass instrument before.

This is no longer an excuse.

All of the musicians in Bolden's band look convincing, but for me, the two stand-out 'playing' performances in this film come from Gary Carr (Bolden) and Reno Wilson (Louis Armstrong) - I've even compared a video of Reno with Louis and he is absolutely spot on!

Their performance really shows that an actor taking the time to ensure every aspect of their character is believable can make a huge difference.

Most film directors probably think that people won't notice that an actor isn't playing an instrument convincingly - Dan Pritzker clearly did and I thank him for this.

Instruments aside, the performances from the entire cast were simply impeccable.

This film is full of light and shade with exciting, colourful stage performances and dark, gritty scenes of drug use, hallucinations and a terrifying romp around a lunatic asylum which wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie.

Gary Carr (you may know him as the jazz singer, Jack Ross, in Downton Abbey) is outstanding.

His portrayal of Bolden is passionate to the point of manic which is a plausible trait.

The most genius part of his performance is the Bolden's transition and mental decline when other young talented musicians begin to surface.

At this point, Bolden has been used to being the big fish in a very new and small pond, with nobody coming close to his ability and style until his style became popular and many cornettists started to copy and excel in this newly created genre called 'ragtime'.

I also have to praise the writers Dan Pritzker (who also directed the movie) and David. N. Rothschild, as they have managed to create a backstory for Bolden that could have actually happened - no easy feat with such little information available.


Full Attention Required

This isn't a film you can watch whilst scrolling through Facebook, as scenes rapidly change from present day, to flashbacks, to feverish hallucinations, so you will end up being lost and unable to follow.

This frantic skipping through different scenes is good in some ways, as it mirrors Bolden's chaotic thoughts and for the first hour or so of the film, I thought it worked well.

After the first hour is where I had issues with this film.

I'm not sure what the aims of the interpretive dance and random scenes that flash in between sections of narrative actually are.

Whether they're trying to be artsy with loads of symbolism or are trying to show how unhinged Bolden has become, it doesn't matter as it doesn't really work, in my opinion.

At times I was left trying to figure out what was going on, as there wasn't a lot of explanation for these 'random' scenes and so they detracted from the plot, in my opinion.

Also, I'm not a prude, but oh my days the amount of nudity in the last half of the film - just not necessary.

Yes the female form is wonderful, female empowerment, blah blah blah - but I'm watching a film about a cornetist and the birth of jazz - I would prefer not to have a pair of boobs or a flash of buttcheek in every other scene, ta!

There are scenes where Bolden is clearly enjoying fame and treating himself to a couple of prostitutes.

I am astute enough to know that he isn't planning on playing a game of scrabble with them and I don't need a naked lady on my screen for 10 minutes to substantiate this - go back to the plot.

It cheapened the film for me slightly and now makes this film a missed opportunity for education purposes.

I would love school children to have the chance to learn about more black musicians like Buddy Bolden and this film could have been a fantastic resource, as despite the storyline being mostly fictitious, it could have happened and the historical context and Buddy's achievements are real.

The constant bouncing around between reality and hallucination, as well as the bouncing of boobs and other intimate areas in the latter half of the film, makes the film completely inappropriate for school-age children.

I don't know if they were trying to pad out the film with these scenes due to the lack of information about Bolden, but I don't think this is a reasonable excuse considering how good the first half of the film was.


It's good, but there's better out there

We need more films celebrating the incredible life and work of black musicians in the world, so I'm grateful for 'Bolden', and it isn't a bad film at all, but there are films that have similar aims and have executed them better such as:

  • 'Get on Up' - James Brown biographical drama

  • 'Ray' - Ray Charles biographical drama

Both are available on Netflix and I highly recommend them.

All in all, 'Bolden' wasn't far off the mark, but it could have been better. I love the music and I love some of the artistic interpretation, but if you're going to create a 'Gene Kelly-esque' moment with interpretive dance or scenes with a lot of symbolism, it needs more context or explanation to work.

Bolden is available on DVD and to stream from Amazon Prime Video.


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