Apollo Revisits Era of Silent Movies with Louis

Matthew Sprung

Anticipatory chatter buzzed around the revamped Apollo Theatre last Sunday night like the “wah-wah” sound of a plunger mute. An earlier, invite-only presentation of Louis, the 2010 homage to Louis Armstrong, on the night of Thursday the 20th had Oberlin demanding another chance to catch the unique experience. In an introduction to the audience, Dean of the Conservatory David Stull remarked that the interdisciplinary affair was “an example of what is possible at the Apollo” in its ability to provide “rare and unique performances.”

The film was made to be accompanied by a live jazz score, and the director, Dan Pritzker, placed the task of arranging and composing music in the capable hands of Wynton Marsalis. Making debuts in Chicago and in New York’s Apollo Theater in 2010, Marsalis led a band of eleven in accompanying the film. Oberlin, in turn, was not let down by a resounding performance from the specially assembled Oberlin Jazz Orchestra. The student musicians, led by Oberlin Jazz Ensemble director Dennis Reynolds, followed an electronic metronome through an earpiece while also watching the film on a separate screen to give a precise performance.

The film and music were synched so tightly and smoothly that it put the audience at risk of forgetting the live orchestra playing confidently in front of them. However, the warm vibrations pouring from the instruments continuously demanded deserved awareness. A loud snare hit at an especially tense moment made one attendee jump in her seat. While Reynolds gave direction to the band, the band simultaneously gave direction to the audience. Carrying the tempo and pacing the narrative, the music turned the film from a spectacle into an experience overflowing with emotion.

Both a cinematic and musical accomplishment, the live musical score harmoniously vitalized the film loosely based on Louis Armstrong’s life growing up in New Orleans. Set in a 1907 New Orleans, the film follows a young Louis, played by Anthony Coleman, as he finds himself in the middle of a complicated relationship between a crooked politician and a beautiful prostitute. The baby they conceived poses a threat to his gubernatorial campaign. Louis finds his ability to help the damsel in distress through his emerging musical passion, ultimately finding his voice through a cornet gifted to him. The satirical drama plays out in a classic slapstick style. Jackie Earle Haley does an admirable job in a Chaplin-esque performance as the crooked judge running for governor, even donning the mustache. Most of the actors provided sensational facial expressions that carried the highly stylized film, which occasionally flirted with surrealism.

While the film was visually stunning, thanks to Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the plot could have benefited from a greater focus on Louis. Instead the focus shifted more toward the slapstick chase scenes and excesses of sex, booze and jazz. Yet what the film lacked in plot it made up for with the music. The orchestra’s musicians worked meticulously off of each other without losing any warmth or spontaneity. The film answered criticisms of what a contemporary black and white silent film could produce. The fantasy was one that the audience was happy to indulge in, easily persuaded by the contagious blend of rhythm, comedy and drama.

The film, dubbed a “modern re-imagining” of the silent film, illuminated the modern re-imagining of the Apollo Theater and its potential. While other colleges or towns might expect from their theater’s renovation a multiplex with ten screens, Oberlin’s unique relationship with its educational and recreational institutions called for a more engaging source of entertainment. While mindless blockbusters may satisfy the occasional hunger, the Apollo will use its resources to educate in addition to entertain, making for a more enriching and lasting experience. This type of unique and special offering was precisely what was on display in the showing of Louis, a film not soon to be forgotten. Leaving the theater, a new buzz of chatter rang throughout the satisfied audience with an apparent question on everyone’s mind — what’s next?