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I don't know anybody who doesn't like Louis Armstong, whose presence "among us" as an entertainer continues strong almost 40 years after his passing. Armstrong's love of music and his stage persona never faltered, and one can see him doing essentially the same undying performance at the beginning of the sound era as he did just a few months before his death in 1971. Recommended films to see the show-biz Armstrong performing are the 1936 musical Pennies from Heaven and the 1959 musical bio The Five Pennies, although he appeared in scores of films. Armstrong played the Hollywood game but had strong words on the subject of racial inequality.
The Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival of 1970 hosted a birthday concert for Armstrong, featuring a lineup of greats that so impressed festival producer George Wein that he collaborated with producer Sidney Stiber (Robert Frost, 1961) to get it recorded on film. The resulting show had a spotty distribution and showed up a couple of years back on PBS, albeit in an edited form. Producer Albert Spevak supervised this restored video presentation, a nostalgic keepsake in which some of Louis Armstrong's closest associates come together for a concert / party.
Wein and Stiber hired at least two, perhaps three film cameramen to cover the afternoon rehearsals for the concert as well as the performance itself. They then interviewed Armstrong at his home and used his comments as a narration. The editor has thankfully kept most of the performances intact, rather then cut them up or cover them over with other material.
The original 16mm photography for Good Evening Ev'rybody: In Celebration of Louis Armstrong is good and the color has not faded, something we appreciate in docus of this vintage. It has been reformatted for widescreen with no apparent harm to compositions. Producer Spevak says that it's an HD transfer from the original negative. That "negative" may be a low-contrast interpositive or print, because the dirt and specks on the emulsion surface are all black. The show looks fine, especially when compared to many surviving rock 'n' roll films from this period. The mono sound has been carefully remastered as well.
Rehearsals begin with an all-star lineup of trumpet players: Bobby Hackett, Joe Newman, Jimmy Owens, Wild Bill Davison. After Armstrong sings a bit of "Hello Dolly", they all play bits of songs and work out cues. Armstrong is so natural that the camera doesn't seem an intrusion ... he jokes, talks to fans and gives instructions to his players with ease. The docu cuts several times to interview pieces in which Louis Armstrong discusses a number of topics: his beginnings and his relationship to New Orleans, other musicians, his friends in the business.
The concert per se begins somewhere near the 24-minute mark. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band leads off with several songs, including "I'm Confessin'", "Thanks a Million" and "I Want a Little Girl". The trumpeters then do a song apiece, starting again with Bobby Hackett. Each artist makes a speech about Armstrong, and then the show cuts to an Armstrong interview observation on that particular friend. Jimmy Owens and Ray Nance take part in this section as well. Dizzy Gillespie steps up with his upturned Trumpet and plays "Ain't Misbehavin'".
Louis A. steps onstage, dressed to the nines, 52 minutes into the show. He tosses off three full songs: "When It's Sleepy Time Down South", "Pennies from Heaven" and "Blueberry Hill". Then Ed Williams introduces Mahalia Jackson, who launches into a long gospel section: "Let There Be Peace On Earth", "Come On Children Let's Sing", "Elijah Rock", "Just A Closer Walk With Thee". Armstrong comes out to join her on that song, and then sing a duet on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In". To finish off the show Armstrong sings "Mack the Knife". The docu then returns to earlier rehearsal footage for a sampling of Armstrong's then- hit tune "What a Wonderful World".
Armstrong looks like he's having a heck of a good time; we're told that he hadn't sung gospel with Jackson before. All of these performers are well into their years and Ms. Jackson wears a very unflattering wig. Just the same she's clearly into her piece, actually dancing a few steps for one of her tunes.
In his interview comments Armstrong comes off as a clear enthusiast for what he's doing. He's eager to sing his standards for the audience, which in the cutaways we're shown seem to be exclusively upscale and white. He praises The Beatles' new album, Let it Be. He looks awfully vital for a man only a few months from the end, which is either a testimony to his energy or his professionalism, probably both. With plenty of good music and well-edited commentary, this is a fine concert memento of Satchmo at the end of his career.
Image's DVD of Good Evening Ev'rybody: In Celebration of Louis Armstrong is a good presentation that won't disappoint. To amplify my comments on the picture quality above, I played it on a very large monitor and it held together fine, something that I can't say for some other filmed concerts of this vintage.
New producer Spevak has included some outs as extras. The song "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" is a particular favorite of Armstrong, and he talks about it before we see a rehearsal performance. Armstong discusses the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in an interview excerpt, accompanied by the band's concert performance of "Bourbon Street Parade".
Producer and Newport Jazz Festival organizer George Wein talks about his impulse to record the concert in a third piece called The Story Behind the Film. We're very grateful that he did. The show was almost a last hurrah for both Armstrong and Ms. Jackson; she passed away half a year after he did, in 1972.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Good Evening Ev'rybody: In Celebration of Louis Armstrong rates:
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