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.