Branford Marsalis: The Sound Illusionist

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Daria Gamliel for Cinetalk.net

Illusionist is an apt title for Reinhold Jaretzky’s film. At first it would seem that the Illusion is that an R&B musician is disguised as a jazz instrumentalist. However, it soon becomes clear that though the film is marketed as a Branford Marsalis biopic of sorts, it is moreso a documentary about Louisiana.

The film may be centered on a famous saxophone player, but the main theme is really the history of New Orleans. The food, the community spirit, the post-Katrina events are all touched upon. It’s as though Marsalis is welcoming the viewer to his hometown and acting as tour guide. And he is a very knowledgeable host. He’s well read and has an extensive data bank of knowledge. The film is therefore very informative.

There’s nothing stuck up or snooty about Marsalis. He seems to be in touch with the world around him. He is candid, casual and human. He tells jokes, shares silly anecdotes and even swears like a normal every-dude. The film quickly becomes a warm narrative about life in New Orleans seen through the eyes of a local. It’s almost incidental that this local happens to be a revered jazz musician.

Though he is well recognized, Marsalis remains humble. He continues to strive for more knowledge. Something he said shows that he is not someone with saxophone superpowers. In a way, he is just a normal guy seeking to always better himself.

“You keep going […] You don’t settle for where you are at the moment, because there’s always someplace to go.”

Marsalis’ warmth is emulated by the film’s aesthetics. At times, the cinematography employs extreme closeups of Marsalis’ face during performances. These shots are intimate. The framing is often so tight that it’s just eyebrows to chin, with only a hint of saxophone mouthpiece. It’s fitting, considering the relationships Marsalis has with his onscreen partners. The bromance between him and longtime collaborator Sting is quite charming. In two separate interview clips, they each use a form of the word symbiotic to describe their musical relationship.

It’s equally adorable to watch the younger and elder Marsalis tease and interact with each other. However, from a cinematic perspective, some of the camerawork could have been more straightforward. The rack-focus effects during most of their conversations ends up being a distraction. As focus alternates between Ellis and Branford, the intimacy gets muddled when one person is blurred while the other is crisp. The director of photography could have better portrayed the connection between father and son by keeping them both within the same margin of depth of field.

This is a minor drawback overall. In general Jaretzky’s film is engaging, and the jazz is rich. It would delight any Marsalis fan, but beyond the music, this is a well-made slice of Americana. A documentary about life. Relationships. Learning and striving for knowledge. Marsalis is the perfect host to introduce general audiences to his world, whether they know music or not.

Don’t miss the Montreal premiere. From July 1st – 7th at Cinema du Parc.

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