By Bryan Newbury
August 3, 2010
Being a product review, as the film review by Michael Sragow precludes any further efforts at reviewing the film, which shall be discussed presently…
Aficionados of old time music, to understate matters a bit, tend to be completists. They may specialize in one genre or even one artist. Some, given the right conditions and resources, fill rooms with 78’s and hard drives full of obscure material. Others are named Joe Bussard. Regardless of what category an OTM obsessive falls under, there is little doubt that he will be purchasing a copy of Terry Zwigoff’s unsurpassable Louie Bluie, the DVD Edition of which is soon to be available from The Criterion Collection.
If for nothing else, the film is worth owning based on footage alone. Yank Rachell trading quips with Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong… Armstrong giving longtime partner Ted Bogan endless grief while haggling him out of a pair of Technicolor trousers… Armstrong reminiscing with an old acquaintance in La Follette, Tennessee… Armstrong back in Chicago, sharing his indescribable work, ABC’s of Pornography… and then, there’s the music.
These would certainly be enough to merit repeated viewings. That Zwigoff crafted the film with an uncanny dexterity is simply a bonus.
Louie Bluie does what all good documentaries on the subject should do, provided the film has the advantage of firsthand footage of the performers: it gives the viewer the impression of being a visitor, taking in the scenes as they happen. Zwigoff eclipses such outstanding filmmakers as Les Blank in his deft touch, convincing the viewer that he is such a visitor, while interspersing the straight interview material in such a way that he feels that the archival footage comes from a story and the pictures of earlier days were sat on your lap in the form of a large album, the kind with defective adhesive and stubborn vellum paper. It could be argued that a character as immense as Armstrong might have deserved more lionizing treatment, (this is a man who, despite the storybook childhood we all expect – that of poverty, fish fries, barn dances, a preaching father, etc. – managed to speak enough Italian to get by in Chicago’s immigrant quarters, boasts a calligraphy that is immaculate, and parallels artists as imminent as Louis Paul Boon in his literary pornography), and no doubt a study of Armstrong the autodidact would be a very worthy undertaking, but that is another project altogether, and one Zwigoff hadn’t the resources to accomplish. Besides, that would be a profound turnoff to the OTM enthusiast, this film’s primary audience.
Being one of those enthusiasts, it is difficult to surmise the film’s broader appeal. Were it not for the larger-than-life protagonist, Louie Bluie might be a work exclusive to people owning more than three Revenant Records releases. Spending an hour with the bombastic factotum of creative pursuits should be a universal enjoyment, then again, so should dropping the needle on a 78 of Louis Armstrong’s Stardust.
People of the OTM persuasion will be thrilled to find what the reviewer is tempted to refer to as liner notes, complete with illustrations of Armstrong, pictures of the musicians featured and a prose piece by Michael Sragow that is brilliant enough to make this review superfluous. (There was a profound temptation to reprint the Sragow piece in the booklet, which is difficult not to pilfer. Reading the material after viewing the film rendered most notes and observations unusable, as Sragow hits every note, and none of them in the wrong place.) In addition, the bonus material times in at over a half-hour, every second of which is pure heaven to a music fan.
In the end, the viewer must be appreciative that three decades ago, before iTunes and Amazon.com made it possible to be a sort of collector with great ease, people like Zwigoff felt the need to document people like Rachell, Ikey Robinson, Ted Bogan and Tom Armstrong, the likes of which younger generations will only experience through works such as this one, to say nothing of the subject, Howard Armstrong, who was granted to this world for ninety-four years, and had neither antecedent nor progeny.
A film by Terry Zwigoff
Color, 60 Minutes, Monaural, 1985