Jazz Film 'Bolden' Mixes Fact And Fiction To Capture A Legendary Bandleader

Photo: Bolden Where The Music Began

Photo: Bolden
Where The Music Began

Dan Pritzker's new film tells the story of Charles "Buddy" Bolden, a mythic jazz hero who burned so bright he burned himself out. Though striking and stylish, Bolden loses its grip in the final act.

Transcript (National Public Radio):


This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Bolden" tells the story of the legendary early jazz band leader Buddy Bolden. He's portrayed by Gary Carr, whose other roles include playing a mildly jazzy singer on "Downton Abbey" and a menacing pimp on HBO's "The Deuce." Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, keeps a close eye on jazz movies and has this review.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Charles Buddy Bolden was the original jazz hero. A New Orleans cornet player at the turn of the last century, the African American Bolden was famous for playing loud and earthy blues, his shirt open to expose a red flannel undershirt.

Some called him King Bolden. He captivated women and eventually cracked up, spending the last 24 years of his life in a mental hospital. Bolden was jazz's first mythic figure, who burned so bright he burned himself out. Decades later, jazz researchers heard a lot of hearsay about him, which they duly repeated as fact, including stories later discredited. He hadn't, for example, parachuted out of a hot air balloon as a promotional stunt.

Director Dan Pritzker's film "Bolden" freely mixes fact and myth. In the movie, Buddy does jump from that balloon, and it makes up still more stuff. The framed story leaves plenty of room for riffing on the bare facts. In 1931, an older and adult Buddy thinks back on and tries to piece together his old glory days. It's a life scene in fragments, shifting back and forth between Buddy's dark present and brilliant past. Within 1931, it shifts between Buddy's gloomy hospital ward and a bright New Orleans ballroom. There, Louis Armstrong is doing a live broadcast, which Bolden overhears on a nurse's radio. Louis is well-impersonated by Reno Wilson. His growl is one more ghostly voice in Buddy's head.

Read the full review here.