director Terry Zwigoff’s first film is a true treat: a documentary about the obscure country blues musician and idiosyncratic visual artist Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, member of the last known black string band in America. As beguiling a raconteur as he is a performer, Louie makes for a wildly entertaining movie subject, and Zwigoff honors him with an unsentimental but endlessly affectionate tribute. Full of infectious music and comedy, Louie Bluie
is a humane evocation of the kind of pop-cultural marginalia that Zwigoff would continue to excavate in the coming years.
Old-time-music aficionado Terry Zwigoff's first film, Louie Bluie
, has been saved from extinction, according to the director's commentary on this Criterion Collection rerelease. The film he shot it on apparently was suffering from a lethal degradation called "vinegar syndrome," but fortunately viewers now have DVD access to the story that inspired this music collector to become a documentary filmmaker. At an hour long, Louie Bluie
is packed with information, half about fiddle and mandolin master Howard Armstrong, and half about the history of old-time traveling bands, many of whom were extended families on jugs or strings, as was Armstrong's. Zwigoff shot the film partially in Armstrong's Detroit housing project, recruiting musicians Ted Bogan, "Banjo" Ikey Robinson, and "Yank" Rachell in order to capture Armstrong jamming out with musicians of his ilk, and to extract the same charisma he entertained with in his 1930s and '40s heyday. In the kitchen over buckets of chicken, in a grimy shantytown back alley, or in his sister-in-law's living room, Armstrong sings and plays his instruments between spinning hilarious yarns and reminiscences. Two scene highlights include Armstrong at a Tennessee yard sale, yakking about the invention of porch screen doors, and Armstrong busting out, to "Banjo" Ikey's surprise, his "Whorehouse Bible," a fantastic handmade book of drawings and stories penned by the man himself. Vintage archival photography peppers the film, to contextualize what Armstrong describes from his past, and a trip Zwigoff and Armstrong take to Armstrong's hometown in Tennessee yields some great additional subject matter. While the only real supplementary material here are some excellent jams that didn't make the final cut, Zwigoff's commentary adds much to the film's cultural importance. It also underscores, to reiterate what this innovative director says, that if you've got the subject matter, one simply feels compelled to turn the camera on and shoot. As a character, a comedian, a musical talent, and a living legend, Armstrong is the man. Lucky for us, Zwigoff had the good eye, and the humor, to translate for a film audience this slice of blues music history for posterity. --Trinie Dalton