Louie Bluie

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Features: Howard Armstrong, Jams Rachell, Ikey Robinson, Ted Bogan, Tom Armstrong
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1985
Country: U.S.
Louie Bluie Criterion Collection DVD
Louie BluiePrior to the release of Terry Zwigoff’s independently produced documentary Louie Bluie in the mid-1980s, the name Louie Bluie meant little to even dedicated music collectors and the name Howard Armstrong meant even less. When Zwigoff, a musician and rabid collector of 78s, traded some records in the mid-1970s for a copy of the 1932 recording of “State Street Rag” by Armstrong (who recorded under the name Louie Bluie) and guitarist Ted Bogan, he had no idea what he had discovered. Zwigoff was thunderstruck by the recording (which turned out to be one of only two copies in known existence), but he had no idea who the artists were. He found Bogan living in Chicago, who led him to Armstrong, who at the time was living in subsidized housing in Detroit after having retired from working the auto assembly line in 1971. Zwigoff met Armstrong with the intention of writing an article for a specialist music magazine, but came away knowing that he had discovered a great subject for a documentary.

The subsequent film, Louie Bluie, will speak to anyone who appreciates music history and likes to dig into the deepest roots of Americana in the form of street jazz, string blues, gospel, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley, most of which is still available only on old 78s sold from collector to collector. In a sense, the film completed Armstrong’s strange journey from popular folk artist and club performer in the 1930s and ’40s, to complete obscurity in the 1960s, to minor resurrection amid renewed interest in old-time jazz, country and blues in the 1970s and ’80s. When he died in 2003 at the age of 94, his obituary in The New York Times called him “the last guardian of a vanishing African-American tradition of string-band music.” To Zwigoff, he was a “larger-than-life character, one of the funniest and smartest guys I ever met,” and one of the film’s chief virtues is the way it translates the impression Armstrong made on Zwigoff to the viewer.

Louie Bluie is a jaunty, engaging documentary that never at any point pretends to be comprehensive or in any way complete. Rather, it is a fleeting 60-minute grassroots snapshot of an astonishingly gifted musician in the twilight of his years still doing that which made him fleetingly famous in the music world decades earlier. A wizard on both the mandolin (which he took up after his pastor father rejected it as the “devil’s instrument”) and the fiddle, Armstrong was a genius of a performer, sliding easily from instrument to instrument and musical genre to musical genre. There was virtually nothing he couldn’t do musically (rumor had it he could play at least 22 instruments), so it is no small surprise that at least half of Zwigoff’s documentary simply observes him and his band mates jamming in various locations, from Armstrong’s living room, to a small club, to a Chicago street corner. His music is rough and unruly, primitive in its way, but it has an infectious vibe and sense of bluesy authenticity that all the overproduced, overmixed, and digitally manipulated songs of today studiously lack.

What makes Armstrong all the more fascinating of a subject is the fact that his artistic gifts did not stop at music. Rather, he was also an impressive visual artist and writer who filled pages with poetry, prose, and watercolor paintings that reflected both traditional African American folklore and his own wicked sense of humor and lack of decorum (his unpublished masterpiece, which is trotted out and paged through several times in the film, is a massive tome of writing and art called The ABCs of Pornography). Make no mistake: Armstrong earns his frequently used label of “raconteur,” and Zwigoff needs to do little but train his camera in Armstrong’s direction and let the 75-years-young Renaissance Man reminisce and riff on everything from his family life, to his music, to his appreciation of good art (he claims to be a “realist”) and disdain for modern art (one of the film’s best scenes has him deriding a modern art sculpture in downtown Chicago). With his wardrobe of brightly colored suits and berets, Armstrong has a powerful screen presence, and Zwigoff is freed of any need to overlay the film with voice-over narration or explanation. We remember him largely because of his own self-awareness, and in the end you can’t help but respect a man of his accomplishments barreling forward into the eighth decade of his life with little to suggest that anything stands in his way.

Louie Bluie Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 surround
  • Audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff
  • 30 minutes of unused footage
  • Stills gallery
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 10, 2010

    As director Terry Zwigoff says near the beginning of his audio commentary, the acetate safety stock on which Louie Bluie was shot was beginning to break down and succumb to vinegar syndrome after 25 years on the shelf, so Criterion’s high-definition digital transfer of the film may very well have saved it. The slightly windowboxed image on this disc, which was transferred from a 16mm interpositive and has been extensively cleaned up via various digital processes, looks excellent for its age and source material. Free of any nicks, scratches, dirt, or debris save a few stray hairs that were caught in the camera’s gate and are therefore inherent to the film itself, Louie Bluie looks as good as I can imagine it looking. There is a strong presence of grain, but the image still maintains good detail and definition. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally scrubbed, is inherently limited in scope, but still has enough depth and fidelity to help us appreciate the vitality of Armstrong’s live music.
    In his screen-specific audio commentary, Zwigoff mentions early on that he doesn’t normally like to record commentaries, but he felt that the obscure nature of Howard Armstrong and his film about him necessitated some context. The film is enjoyable in its own right, but it’s even more enjoyable once you’re listened to Zwigoff talk about both the process of its production and additional information about Armstrong that couldn’t be included in such a short film. Also on the disc is an additional half hour of unused footage broken up into 11 sequences, most of which are additional musical performances, and a stills gallery. The insert booklet contains a new essay by film critic Michael Sragow and reproductions of many of Armstrong’s paintings glimpsed in the film.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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