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Director Terry Zwigoff tells us that if he had been aware of how many independent documentaries ever find an audience, he would never have tried to make Louie Bluie, his delightful hour-long film about an enormously talented and entertaining blues musician. Zwigoff spent his life savings to launch the film on the hope that an arts foundation would like what they saw and grant him completion funds. As it turned out, the critical success of Zwigoff's film would lead directly to his award-winning documentary Crumb and a career as a feature film director.
Zwigoff's initial interest was collecting old 78rpm records of blues performers. Curiosity led him to track down a string blues performer whose playing he particularly admired. Zwigoff only knew him as "Louie Bluie", his billing on the old record labels. He soon discovered that the musician's real name was Howard Armstrong, and that he was still alive and well.
Once we see and hear Howard Armstrong it is obvious that Zwigoff found a perfect film subject. The sharp-witted 75-year-old is an impressive talent and a wholly distinct individual, a lively, irreverent soul who reminds us that the musicians behind those ancient records were a lost breed of entertainer. Armstrong plays the mandolin and the fiddle at a blistering pace that makes one smile; well into retirement he's a regular music machine. He's also blessed with the gift of gab, and accompanies his songs with small talk and asides that probably haven't changed in fifty years. Hearing Armstrong speak of going door to door between bars with his band, looking for a chance to play, pumps life into old photos of black musicians posing stiffly in suits and ties. Even older scrapbook pictures show Howard and his young brothers posing proudly with their musical instruments.
To our delight, Armstrong's enthusiasm for playing music, explaining his background and just plain talking trash hasn't diminished with the years. Zwigoff reunites Howard with a couple of his old buddies, including musician Ted Bogan from that original old 78, and they immediately start in with the sly, frequently profane comments. Armstrong teases one friend about being a Casanova to the ladies and makes fun of another, but his observations are too witty and affectionate to be called insults. Armstrong's an original tomcat musician from a colorful past that disappeared ages ago. He's such a natural that he makes us feel comfortable. He'll embarrass a relative with a dirty story, but shows consideration and respect when talking to a young girl who admires his work.
Zwigoff takes Armstrong to a music get-together in a barn near his old hometown. The musician at first stays in the car, as he learned long ago not to wander into places where he might not be wanted. Some white old-timers recognize Armstrong on sight - after a gap of 45 years -- and an impromptu jam session results. Armstrong has already explained that he found his way into the white-controlled music business by playing in immigrant communities, where he learned to speak Italian and a little Hungarian. By 1930 he and his band were in Chicago, casting about for whatever work could be found.
The documentary also reveals Armstrong to be a self-taught artist; Zwigoff arranges for an exhibition of his colorful canvasses. Even more impressive are the musician's hand-lettered, hand-illustrated books. One is a personal history complete with Armstrong's comic strip renderings of his family and various bands. A second homemade book is a wild work of street-level "philosophy" called The ABC's of Pornography. The book is exactly what it sounds like, an X-rated guide to life with chapter titles like, "C is for Crabs". In its total lack of restraint, the scrapbook-sized tome reminds us of the work of Robert Crumb, Terry Zwigoff's creative associate. Crumb's illustration for the Louie Bluie poster uses elements from Armstrong's cartoon drawings, a shapely streetwalker and a devil who totes a cooking pot.
Louie Bluie is a rich character portrait enlivened by impressive musical sequences. Howard Armstrong is an engaging raconteur who says exactly what he thinks. Confronted with a giant Picasso sculpture in a Chicago plaza, Howard is quick to exclaim that he has no use for it: "It's like something from the Twilight Zone". Asked how he got his name, he talks about a woman who listened to his band and redubbed each of the musicians with famous names. When she got to Howard, she said, "You're Louis. Not Louis Armstrong, just plain old Louie Bluie".
Criterion's handsome DVD of Louie Bluie is sourced from Terry Zwigoff's original 16mm elements. The rejuvenated image has been cleaned of imperfections. The remastered audio track enhances the show's numerous performance excerpts. Disc producer Susan Arosteguy has arranged a short list of worthy extras. In his thoughtful commentary Zwigoff impresses us as an enthusiast for old blues music who has avoided getting caught up in the Hollywood game. That musical interest is shared by Woody Allen, who contributes a rare endorsement for the movie.
The extras also include with a half-hour of docu outtakes, and a gallery of photos and Howard Armstrong illustrations. More of the muscian's artwork appears in the insert booklet, which contains an essay by critic Michael Sragow. Louie Bluie makes us acutely aware of the relevance of documentary film to history. A film made today about blues music of the 1920s and '30s would probably have to make do with old photos and a few film clips. Captured just in time, Zwigoff's film portrait of the spirited, outspoken Howard Armstrong gives us a glimpse of the living reality of the era gone by.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Louie Bluie rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.