Little Satchmo, written and directed by John Alexander, is a captivating documentary that tells the story of Sharon Louise Preston-Folta, Louis Armstrong’s estranged daughter. The documentary is narrated by Preston-Folta and adapted from her memoir, Little Satchmo; Living in the Shadow Of My Father, Louis Daniel Armstrong.
The film starts off with the story of Armstrong’s rough upbringing in the New Orleans’ neighborhood “The Battlefield”. It tells how he did not have a strong father figure, something that made a definitive impact on how he acted as a father later in life. Armstrong went on to be known for his impeccable trumpet playing, his music standards such as “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World”, and for being a global ambassador for American jazz music. We then learn the story of how he met Preston-Folta’s mother, Lucille “Sweets” Preston, a vaudeville dancer from Harlem, New York. At the time they met, Armstrong was married to his fourth wife, Lucille Wilson. Sweets and Armstrong’s affair lasted more than 20 years and is what lead to the birth of their child, Sharon Louise Preston. Because he was married and living under the extreme pressures of being one of the first African American celebrities with widespread appeal, Armstrong was forced to hide his mistress and daughter from the eyes of the public. The stories Preston-Folta tells weave together the fibers that make up her early life. I deeply appreciated listening to the personal letters and telegrams that Armstrong had sent to Preston-Folta and her mother. I also enjoyed getting to hear the voice messages that he had left for them. The video clips they use of Armstrong, the shots of the set, and the score all perfectly blend together to help the viewers imagine the story that Preston-Folta is recounting. The stories that she shares are intimate and real, filling the film with raw emotion. As the film progresses, we learn about Preston-Folta’s childhood years and how having Armstrong as her father figure impacted her. I found this part to be especially moving as she talks about how her and her mother dealt with his absence and sporadic visits. She shares little mementos and even a collage that he made of them labeled “family portrait”.
The story flows very well. Preston-Folta’s voice is calm cool and collected, making it sound like she is reading from a storybook. She is patient, you can tell that this story has been a long time coming. Every thought is very well thought out and calculated, it feels almost as if the viewer is inside of Preston-Folta’s mind. She’s a natural storyteller; as she speaks it evokes viewers feelings, establishing a connection between Preston-Folta and her audience.
This film is not for the light of heart. It tells the real unfiltered story of Louis Armstrong’s estranged daughter, which shows generational trauma and hurt. It also would have been interesting to hear input from Preston-Folta’s mother. Overall, I felt very intrigued and engaged while watching this film. It is a well made and polished documentary. It maintains on subject through the runtime and the narration is composed of well developed thoughts and stories. I would reccomend this film to music enthusiasts, history buffs, and anyone looking to expand their knowledge on the elusive life of Louis Armstrong. It is an educational film that shows the public and glamorous side of stardom, as well as what happens behind closed doors when the cameras are turned off. This intimate tell all is sure to surprise you and leave you with a lot to think about. It is definitely worth the watch!
Little Satchmo screens at the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 18th.
The film will be Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Sharon Preston-Folta will be present at the In-Person screening to do a Q+A after the showing.
To buy tickets go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022/play/62b9b8da105526007dfc091d
For General Info on the Film Festival go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022