Mythologizing the youthful days of Louis Armstrong, Dan Pritzker’s “Louis” is an attempted simulation of classic silent comedy (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, no less) designed to accompany a Wynton Marsalis-led touring jazz event. Pic portrays Armstrong as a genial, adventuresome, still-unformed young tyke roaming the Storyville district of 1907 New Orleans; though commendably attentive to Chaplin-esque pantomime on the part of lead villain Jackie Earle Haley, this cinematic anomaly (press-screened with the pre-recorded score) falls flat as a stand-alone, though doubtless wows in context.
The film’s high-concept approach finds silent-movie trappings applied nearly across the board — from actors’ coded mannerisms to intertitles, camera wipes and iris shots — but stopping just shy of genuine black-and white photography, as Zsigmond opts for tamped-down color stock, allowing slight chromatic bleed.
The vision of Armstrong here owes more to the precedent of Jackie Coogan in “The Kid” than it does to any serious biographical accuracy. As played by Anthony Coleman, Armstrong is shown growing up around flavorful whorehouses, enjoying an apprenticeship with two good-natured, happy-go-lucky coal hawkers (producers Derick and Steven Martini), happily tooting a toy horn and longing at a shop window for a shiny cornet he can’t afford. This juvenile Satchmo evidently incarnates the spirit of jazz’s future, a symbolic harbinger of things to come.
This suspicion is reinforced by the playlist for the film’s attendant live music show, which contains nary a tribute Armstrong song. Pianist Cecile Licaud performs selections from 19th century composer L.M. Gottschalk (the kinds of cues traditionally associated with silent film screenings), but the majority of the sampled works are original Marsalis compositions, played by Marsalis with a 10-piece ensemble, interspersed with tunes from Charles Mingus, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington (the latter interfacing with the film’s imagery especially effectively).
Armstrong’s innocent infatuation with a high-class prostitute, Grace (ex-Pussycat Doll Shanti Lowry), provides the pretext for the film’s mustache-twirling meller plotline, featuring Grace’s explosive run-ins with crooked Judge Perry (Haley), the father of her mixed-race infant daughter. The gorgeous Lowry shines as the headliner of pic’s slinky cabaret-style numbers, assisted by scantily clad cathouse denizens and choreographed by Hinton Battle with vaudevillianflourish.
Mime coach Hardin Minor schooled cast members in iconic period slapstick — double-takes, headlong dives, pratfalls (all featured prominently, even in characters’ death throes), plus a delectable bit of business called the “hopping corner turn” (wherein inertia forces runners into one-legged hops whenever they round sharp bends).
The most studied instances of extreme physical comedy fall upon Haley’s evil politico, a gubernatorial hopeful whose conflicted personality reps a hybrid of both the good-guy barber and the bad Herr Hinkle from Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” Haley masters many of Chaplin’s signature facial tics, sports the trademark mustache and excels in his reaction shots while battling an “Our Gang”-like bunch of mischievous street urchins.
Technical proficiency notwithstanding, music pro Pritzker’s self-conscious re-creations of silent cinema lack depth. He more authentically reignites the late ’80s/early ’90s tradition of musicvideo: One passage, set inside a pricy brothel’s opulent interior, makes spectacular use of nudity as Zsigmond’s camera sinuously snakes under staircases and around pillars, catching a series of scandalous vignettes in a single, unbroken take. When fully fleshed out by Marsalis’ live perf of his “Phantasmagoric Bordello Ballet,” this interlude should rightly bowl over concert auds.