Three nights ago, I had the
enormous pleasure of viewing Terry Zwigoff's debut film, Louie
Bluie. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, it is now being
released on DVD for the first time, a full twenty-five years after its
original theatrical run. The film's eponymous subject - real
name: Howard Armstrong (1909 - 2003) - was a multi-instrumentalist,
a visual artist, an author, a dandy, a bon vivant, and a world-class
raconteur. In short, he was perfectly suited to Zwigoff's eclectic
tastes, and Louie Bluie is a hilarious, moving, and joyful tribute
to this strange man whose genius mostly flew beneath the radar of mainstream
Zwigoff caught up with Armstrong
in the early 1980s, living obscurely and alone in Detroit. The
film takes Armstrong back to Chicago, where he was based during his
musical heyday of the 1930s. There, he reunites with his former
band mates to reminisce and perform a few dates in local clubs and coffeehouses.
Zwigoff also follows Armstrong back to Tennessee, where he visits family
and talks about developing his musical talent in the context of regional
Cutting together just an hour
of footage featuring Armstrong in performance and in conversation, Zwigoff
creates a loving, lively portrait of Armstrong as a man of boundless
energy, limitless creativity, and accomplished virtuosity in every arena
he chooses to tackle - music, art, and the spoken and written word.
The musical moments are filled with ingenuity and an enthralled devotion
to technique. Armstrong's artwork shows an intuitive grasp of
craft and style. And his stories, told with an infectious verve
and enormous wit, are both hilarious and mindful of the subtleties of
word selection and timing. These stories make up the bulk of
Louie Bluie, beginning with one that describes how Anderson came
by his nickname - a name he recorded under in the '30s. More
memorable are off-color memories of his youth, and a moment when he
describes his artistic process and education to a young fan.
Zwigoff wisely allows Armstrong
and his contemporaries speak for themselves; only rarely is the director
heard as interviewer. The discussion is dominated by the generously
verbose Armstrong. He does not provide us strictly with autobiographical
information, but enough details accrue for us to understand something
of his life's arc up to the early '80s. We learn about his
youth and early musical career; we know he has been married and divorced
twice; we are also treated to a guided personal tour of a book that
he designed, wrote - in longhand, and illustrated: an inspired alphabetic
survey of quasi-pornographic topics.
A one-hour film such as
Louie Bluie doesn't lend itself to analysis or extensive description.
It only cries out to be seen. There's nothing more inspiring
than experiencing life through the eyes someone who has lived a long
and storied one - and industriously enjoyed every minute of it.
I am adding Terry Zwigoff's
Louie Bluie to that very short list of films that I refer to when
I'm not feeling terribly positive about life. It's an honest
movie that captures the spirit of a man with enormous creative energy
and an inspiring zest for everything. DVD Talk Collectors Series.