Reviewer: Steve Dollar
Louie Bluie; Crumb Rating (out of 5): ****½ (both)
Consumed and driven by the bawdy vigor of good old American vernacular culture, the artists who lend their names to this pair of documentaries are such dynamos of idiosyncrasy that no one could have made them up. Newly reissued in a simultaneous one-two punch by the Criterion Collection, Louie Bluie (1985) and Crumb (1995), concern but can barely contain the outsized, wildly original personalities of charismatic African-American string band legend Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, and the cranky underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. These were the first two films made by Terry Zwigoff, a San Francisco government office-worker and obsessive enthusiast for 78 rpm recordings of pre-war American music, who also happened to play saw, mandolin and fiddle in Crumb's own string combo, R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders.
Zwigoff is now more widely known for his later features, Bad Santa and Ghost World, which further articulated the director's kinship with irascible iconoclasts and socially awkward connoisseurs of cultural arcana. Fans of those entertainments checking out Zwigoff's back-catalog classics for the first time will find the square root of his aesthetic, with all its irreverence, political incorrectness, and rude zest charging up every frame. They'll also discover a passion for storytelling and a gift for directorial self-effacement, one that allows these natural-born originals to narrate their own lives so compellingly that its easy to forget there's a camera and crew involved - even as Zwigoff thoughtfully embroiders the narratives.
Louie Bluie is absolutely essential, and not only for anyone interested in American music, or the black string band tradition that has long been overshadowed, historically, by mainline jazz and blues. Armstrong, who died in 2003 at the ripe old age of 94, was perhaps the last living exponent of a sound that flourished in the 1920s and 30s, faded out by the end of the 1950s, and was enjoying a revival by the time Zwigoff's film came out. (More recently, new bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops have begun playing in the style). The film begins after Zwigoff tracked down Armstrong, by then a retired autoworker living in a Detroit suburb, and started filming his recollections. Armstrong, a dapper gent with a pencil-thin moustache, a beret, and spiffy attire, is an indefatigable raconteur whose elegant speech flows with colorful, homey metaphors and rib-tickling twists of folksy logic. Here he is talking about his sidekick, Ted Bogan, as the guitarist sits next to him, barely containing himself.
It's my greatest hope and fondest joy to talk about Mr. Bogan here, and how I brought him out of the land of the valley of the shadow. But he's never been anything but a Casanova all of his life. And if I'm lying, I hope something big comes out of the woods and grabs me. The dude, there wasn't a thing wrong with his looks. Women fell for the dude head over heels. We used to call him Mr. Black Gable. He had that smile, y'know? And some chick bought him a gold crown, and every opportunity he was showing that piece of gold, y'know. Women fell over all kinds a'ways about this dude. He was so greedy after women, he was like a one-eyed cat watching two rat holes.
Zwigoff seamlessly works in vintage recordings - including Armstrong and Bogan's 1934 version of “State Street Rag” that first got him fixated on the mysterious “Louie Bluie” - archival photographs, and staged performances, along with Armstrong's own artwork and poetry. But rather than preserve everything like fossilized specimens in the tar pit of museum-ready history, these rudimentary documentary elements are made to dance - animated by Armstrong's vivid commentary.
An anti-Ken Burns, Zwigoff doesn't sanctify African-American culture, he lets it speak for itself, and no one is better at cultivating his own extravagant lore than Armstrong. The violinist also is gifted in other media. He introduces the great banjo player Yank Rachell to his opus, The ABCs of Pornography, a homemade “whorehouse bible,” full of ribald stories and illustrations that constitute one man's field guide to carnal pleasure - including its author's fascination with the “steatopygic” female form. To paraphrase Sir Mix-a-Lot, he likes big butts and he cannot lie.
[Next up: Crumb]
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