"Louie Bluie" (1985) is a film about performance, not just the performance of music (though there's plenty of that) but that of Louie Bluie himself (plenty of that too). It's no coincidence that director Terry Zwigoff kicks off his documentary by showing his protagonist primping in the mirror. Louie Bluie is preparing for the fast-talking, nattily groomed show that he performs every day, literally the show of his life. Fortunately for us, it's one heck of a performance.
Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, who passed away in 2003, was a blues string-band performer who made his itinerant living pulling on doors at nightclubs from his hometown in Tennessee up north to Chicago and points in between from the 1920s until his semi-retirement several decades later. If you're wondering how Armstrong picked up his nickname, yes it has something to do with Louis Armstrong, but there's more to the story than that. There is always more to the story when Louie Bluie, one of the most gifted raconteurs you will ever encounter, tells it. In this case it's got something to do with an undertaker's daughter and a whole lot of alcohol, a time-honored recipe for success. Zwigoff wouldn't have made this film if it wasn't for Armstrong's music, but just his bawdy, theatrical anecdotes could fuel an entire series let alone this all-too-short 60 minute film.
There are so many great moments to choose from, but my favorite occurs when Armstrong walks along a road with his sister-in-law. He relates a tale from his schooldays when he got in trouble for reciting a dirty rhyme: "The woodpecker flew to the schoolhouse yard. He wanted to peck ‘cause his pecker was hard." His sister-in-law cracks up, as does any other sentient being. Armstrong smiles confidently. He has told the story a hundred times before and provoked the same reaction. Finished with his well-rehearsed act, he folds his arms and looks around as if waiting for Zwigoff to call cut. But the sister-in-law doubles over, barely able to catch her breath from laughter. For the first time, Louie Bluie is caught by surprise. This isn't in the script! But like any good performer, he improvs and joins her in laughter. And if you're not laughing too it's your own damn fault.
Armstrong isn't the only talented performer in the film. Zwigoff reunites him with some of his old string-band mates who he hasn't seen in years. They settle easily into past rhythms both while playing music and shooting the breeze over dinner. The old friends have missed each other and guitarist "Yank" Rendell expresses his boundless affection for ol' Louie Bluie: "If I had a biscuit and you hadn't eaten nothin' in a month, I'd break it in two and eat both pieces." Rehearsed too, no doubt. Or ripped off. But who cares? That line has kept me laughing for the past week. There are dozens more like it.
If I've gone this far without writing about the music, it's because I can't do justice to the music with mere words. There may be greater virtuosos than Louie Bluie but when he tears it up on the fiddle, it's time to stop laughing and start gawking. The fiddle isn't even his main instrument (that would be the mandolin), but Armstrong is a man of many talents. He speaks several languages and is also an artist (his drawings are used throughout the film) and writer with some rather particular interests beyond the world of music. At one point, he unveils his magnum opus, the "Whorehouse Bible," an illuminated script offering sexual advice along with elaborate illustrations of the kind of women with whom Armstrong would like to share his advice. Louie Bluie's Word of the Day: Steatopygic. Look it up.
"Louie Bluie" follows in the tradition of Les Blank's joyous celebrations of great blues musicians. Apropos of Blank, Howard Armstrong has definitely lived a life well spent. All was not rosy for Armstrong during filming. When Zwigoff, who wanted to track down the obscure musician identified as "Louie Bluie" on an old record, first tracked him down he was living in public housing in Detroit and didn't even own a mandolin. Zwigoff had to buy him one for the film. Sound investment.
But Louie Bluie, at least the meticulously crafted Louie Bluie presented to the camera who is as "real" as any other Louie Bluie, doesn't care about any of that. "I'm enjoying what they call the Golden Years," he says. "Louie Bluie" not only celebrates music, it celebrates aging, a rarity in films of any genre. Seventy five year old Howard Armstrong's advice to people who want to stay young at any age is simple: Remain curious every day. That doesn't sound like a rehearsed line, but genuine wisdom from a most curious man. And a magnificent performer. The one, the only Louie Bluie.
Zwigoff, who was not a filmmaker by trade when he started "Louie Bluie," shot on safety film (acetate) which got its name because it was a safer option than early nitrate film. That does not mean, however, that it's necessarily the safest choice. On the commentary track, Zwigoff says that Criterion stepped in just in time because the safety film print of "Louie Bluie" was not much longer for this world.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the image is pictureboxed as are most Criterion full-screen releases nowadays. The restored print (from a 16 mm interpositive) is not buffed and polished as sharply as most Criterion restorations, but that's partially endemic to the safety film source. Image resolution is respectable but not great and there are many shots that look a bit soft and lacking in sharp detail, but this transfer is a strong one overall and I don't think anyone will have any complaints about a movie that might not have lasted another five years without intervention.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The music sounds a little tinny in most cases, but it's still vibrant and alive. Dialogue is clearly audible. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The film is accompanied with a commentary track by Terry Zwigoff. He claims he doesn't like to record commentaries, but is quite open and informative about the genesis of the project and his fondness for both Louie Bluie and old-time string-band music.
The only other extras are 32 minutes of Unused Footage and a Stills Gallery.
The insert booklet features an essay by critic Michael Sragow and illustrations by Howard Armstrong. The front cover of the booklet is credited as "Courtesy of Robert Crumb."
What could have been a fine PBS special about early 20th century African-American string bands is transformed into a boisterous celebration of life and music by the magnetism of Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, a true character who is every bit as comfortable on camera as he was on stage.
"Louie Bluie" is only sixty minutes long and isn't exactly packed with extras so you might be skeptical about purchasing it, but quality beats quantity. "Louie Bluie" is a pure joy from the first frame to the last, and its only flaw is that there isn't enough of it.
Criterion has released two Terry Zwigoff documentaries this week, and I am surprised to find out that I prefer "Louie Bluie" to the much better-known "Crumb" (1995), a documentary about the renowned underground comic book artist R. Crumb. Both are welcome additions to the Criterion Collection.