Strong and Melodious: Louis Armstrong’s Secret Daughter in Little Satchmo

What do you do when you make a film about Louis Armstrong's "secret daughter"? Well, you get her to narrate it and bring her to Setúbal, of course!

U.S.-based film director John Alexander was in Portugal last month to present his latest work, Little Satchmo, at the center of which is Sharon Preston-Folta, the “secret” daughter of American jazz great Louis Armstrong. We were intrigued.

Atlas had a great interview with Alexander when his 2019 film, This is Love —  about obscure soul singer Rudy Love — was part of the first edition of the Capital Filmmakers Festival in Lisbon that year. So we were eager to learn how the past three years have gone by for him and his team. Turns out they’ve been busy:

Atlas: How did the idea of this movie come about? How did you find out about Sharon, and did it take much convincing to get her onboard?

John Alexander: Producer Lea Umberger had approached Sharon about adapting her memoir into a feature documentary film, and amid the success my team and I had enjoyed with This Is Love, our multi-award-winning film about Rudy Love, Lea had become a fan of our work, having programmed it for screening in her local market in Florida, and eventually told Sharon that she had a specific director in mind; this director, it turned out, was me. Once I read Sharon’s memoir, and was impacted by her direct, first-person account of a story seemingly almost too striking to be true, I spoke directly with Sharon and we were off and running. In our very first phone conversation, I was taken aback by her strong and melodious speaking voice, and asked Sharon then and there, “How would you feel about narrating your life story for the film?” When she responded with, “I have always dreamed of doing voice-over work,” that’s when I knew this collaboration was going to work.

Sharon Preston-Folta. All images courtesy of John Alexander.

Who is the team behind the movie and how did it come together for this?

After joining forces with Sharon and Lea, the team behind the movie came together organically, a team whom I have the freedom of interacting and collaborating with as friends, or better yet, family. The first person whom I knew I needed to involve in telling this story, was music/film producer Eddie Korvin. An Emmy/Grammy-winning/nominated veteran composer, Eddie has been an essential part of bringing shape to Little Satchmo from its very foundation. After bringing Eddie on as music supervisor, assistant director and composer for Little Satchmo, he has worked extremely closely with me on all facets of the creative process, lending his expertise in jazz, television, music curation and research, film editing, and all things visual and sonic that come together to make Little Satchmo what it is. Once the film was getting closer to release, the next name to come out of our hat was film producer Shawn Rhodes, who is another one of my closest collaborators and a true force of nature in breeding global excitement around indie films. The passion that Shawn brings to each project is unsurpassable yet contagious, and has led to so many fans around the world hearing Sharon’s voice with amplified power. Finally, the person most behind-the-scenes who is the true intelligence behind anything I operate, my wife and collaborator producer JC Guest has been responsible for too many decisions and solved problems to enumerate. With all that JC unflappably handles, it has been said she must have four brains… and I am convinced she does.

How long did it take to get to this point? What have been the biggest challenges?

Little Satchmo was made remarkably fast for an indie doc, all in the span of 1 year, not to mention during the pandemic. We filmed for only 4 days in-person with Sharon, and most of the production was conducted remotely, comprised of voice-over narration recorded offsite and directed over FaceTime, and second-unit B-roll shots making up most of the images onscreen, effectively creating the sense of isolation and loneliness that is at the heart of Sharon’s story and into which the film strives to physically place viewers. The biggest challenges for me involved withholding myself from doing too much with this precious material; it really was somewhat of an exercise of restraint, empathy and listening, rather than storytelling. My goal throughout production was to keep hands-off and let Sharon’s voice do the talking, because that is the element that struck me to begin with and the element worth preserving for audiences to directly experience themselves. If any temptation crept in to overly direct Sharon, edit her words, or embellish her story, that is the point I had to remind myself to back off and give her the breathing room she needs for her voice to be heard, since it was precisely that which she had been neglected all these years.

What has been the reaction from the rest of Louis Armstrong’s family?

As of late, we have not been contacted directly by anyone of Armstrong family or foundation, however we would be shocked if they have not read about or seen the film in Rolling StoneDeadlineCNN or on PBS. The film’s theatrical release began in Armstrong’s hometown of New Orleans, where the film debuted to a sold-out crowd and both critical and audience acclaim. AARP showcased the film under its Movies for Grownups series, as did Harvard University with an inaugural film and video night in its annual ARTS FIRST festival. Sharon has donated her collection of letters from her father to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the largest library in the world, and there is now talk of the film being shown educationally and institutionally in New York City, throughout overlapping circles with Armstrong foundation. Minds can change and opinions can evolve when given due time and respect, and it will be interesting to see where the film is programmed next.

How has the film been received in Portugal?

The responses to Little Satchmo in Portugal were some of the most heartfelt and emotional of all that we have seen around the world. A cascade of fans from all generations poured toward Sharon and myself after its special screening in Setúbal with Festroia, with many asking for pictures and autographs, confiding in us how much the story touched their hearts.

John Alexander, Sharon Preston-Folta, and Portuguese TV presenter Júlio Isidro

I am proud of how it seems everyone, no matter gender, age, race, or nationality, seems to find something in this film that strikes a deep cord with them personally, as if it is about themselves as much as it is about Sharon, because as we know this story is universal and Sharon’s strength to tell it represents to countless of those who are still summoning the courage to tell theirs. Thanks to Luís Teixeira at Festroia, the media coverage of the film in Portugal has been truly world class. Little Satchmo was honored to be featured in a large spread on the first page of the culture section in the national newspaper, as well as interviewed by national Tunet Radio, and to be showcased in the special “Inesquecível,” by Portuguese icon and the longest running TV presenter in Europe: Júlio Isidro.

What’s next for the film, as far as screenings, festivals and general release dates?

In addition to Portugal, Little Satchmo is making a complete Europe tour around the continent this summer, with acclaimed responses to the film at the Oscar-qualifying Krakow Film Festival, a special mention in Lugano at the OtherMovie Film Festival, and a celebration dedicated to Little Satchmo as the opening night of the African Diaspora Cinema Festival in Firenze, where it was presented with the festival award. The film is currently on PBS in the United States, playing publicly on television as well as in various cities throughout the country as part of its limited theatrical release. Next it will be released internationally, beginning this Fall in art house cinemas on up to 100 screens throughout Europe.

See the trailer on Vimeo or Rolling Stone.

And for more information and to join the journey, you can follow @littlesatchmodoc.

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