By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 25, 2010 at 11:22AM
It's unheard of for a movie to play one night in five cities before it's finished and before it has a distributor. But nothing about Louis--which inspired widely divergent reactions at a recent Beverly Hills screening--is what you'd call normal. Also marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, radio host/writer/actor Harry Shearer's searing expose The Big Uneasy hits theaters August 30 for one night only.
First, Louis is the definition of a vanity project. Veteran Sonia Dada songwriter/musician Dan Pritzker, 50, (a scion of Hyatt Hotels' Jay Pritzker) had never made a movie before when he fell in love with the silent cinema one night, watching Chaplin's City Lights with a live orchestra. For five years he has pursued filming a story about the man who invented jazz in New Orleans, Charles "Buddy" Bolden, who most folks don't know about. "I was compelled by the idea of Buddy Bolden," says Pritzker. "I did it out of love and passion. It's an expensive thing to do. Somebody out there has got to do something for the love of it."
So Pritzker went ahead and developed a script with Derick and Steven Martini, and filmed a 35 mm Bolden biopic set in 1907 with Anthony Mackie and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond--budget: $25 million and change. They also changed lights, lenses and film speed (18 fps) and shot with the same crew on the same New Orleans locations and Wilmington, North Carolina soundstages a second film, the 68-minute silent, Louis, titles and all. This one happens to be finished first.
Louis stars Jackie Earle Haley as a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash villain, Michael Rooker as his evil henchman, the Martini brothers as two lorry drivers, the gorgeous Shanti Lowry as a singer prostitute with a heart of gold, and Anthony Coleman as the title character, a young black boy (Armstrong) who wants to play the trumpet. Marsalis agreed to compose the score, based on Pritzker's temp track of jazz classics, from Duke Ellington to early New Orleans jazz.
The film is playing five cities, starting in Chicago August 25, then Detroit, Bethesda, Philadelphia and finally New York's Apollo Theater on August 30 with Marsalis leading a live performance of his score with his 10-piece ensemble. Pianist Cecile Licad will play period pieces by New Orleans' own Louis Moreau Gottschalk, "the first great American composer," says Pritzker. "He died in 1869 when Scott Joplin was two years old."
Only after these bookings will that score be cued and recorded for the movie, which can then be shown to distributors--along with the Bolden film--for possible pick-up. "I have no distributor," says Pritzker. "I just got cans of film."
Another entertainment figure decided to make a New Orleans movie timed to Hurricane Katrina, and take it on the road. New Orleans champion Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, KCRW's Le Show) was so upset when president Obama suggested that the flooding of New Orleans during Katrina was a "natural disaster" that he decided to make a movie showing how the Army Corps of Engineers messed up. The resulting documentary, The Big Uneasy, which also features Treme star and New Orleans resident John Goodman, will show around the country on August 30. The film is Ken Turan's pick-of-the-week.
There's plenty of Katrina action these days: HBO started airing Spike Lee's Katrina follow-up If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise on Aug 23 and 24.