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With: Howard Armstrong, Ted Bogan
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 60
Date: 10/01/1985

Louie Bluie (1985)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Nothing in This Wide World for Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first watched Terry Zwigoff's debut film Louie Bluie sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s, after having seen and loved Crumb. I checked out a battered old VHS tape from the library, watched it and decided it was a minor debut, lacking in whatever personality and skill that Zwigoff brought to his later films. The film has been missing from DVD for this entire time, and now the Criterion Collection has righted a wrong by giving it a proper release with beautiful picture and sound. (They apparently rescued it just in time; the film was beginning to deteriorate.) Seeing it again under much better conditions, I understand how wrong I was, and how much this film is of a piece with Crumb.

The film began when Zwigoff decided to write an article about one of his favorite 78 rpm records, "State Street Rag," credited to someone named "Louie Bluie." He discovered that "Louie Bluie" was actually Howard Armstrong, who was one of the few black fiddle and mandolin virtuosos in the world. Even more astonishingly, Armstrong was still alive. Zwigoff began interviewing him, and soon the idea for the film began to emerge. Zwigoff approached several documentary filmmakers about his idea, but he eventually realized that if there was ever going to be a film, he would have to direct it himself. He took out his life savings to finance the film and began.

Like Crumb, the film depends a great deal on merely spending time with its subject. There's no plot, and no real payoff, except for the possible theme that things just ain't the way they used to be. Zwigoff also staged a good many scenes, but always for the benefit of creating a more genuine connection. We see Armstrong bantering with a few other old guys, fellow musicians, and we assume that they're old friends and that they do this sort of thing all the time. Not so. They met not long before the film started shooting.

What Zwigoff couldn't have planned is the weird string of coincidences, beginning with the fact that Armstrong was actually an amazing illustrator with a style not unlike R. Crumb's. One sequence documents Armstrong's masterpiece, a kind of "porn Bible," filled with stories and drawings about sex and other aspects of life. In another sequence, Armstrong and Zwigoff stumble into a barn jam filled with other famous musicians of the past -- some of whom were familiar to Zwigoff -- and Armstrong joins in.

Over the course of the film, the very vibrant Armstrong talks to people and shares stories. Zwigoff includes one canny, bittersweet edit, capturing Armstrong telling the same story to two different people; these stories are clearly rehearsed and at the ready for any occasion. Armstrong also plays some old tunes with his old partner Ted Bogan. Zwigoff insists that the music is a far cry from vintage Armstrong, but no matter: it sounds great and it is a vibrant and vital record of music history. As others more knowledgeable than me have pointed out, this stuff isn't exactly blues. It's more like a weird blues subgenre, and so it's all the more important to remember.

When Armstrong isn't making music, he mostly walks around and talks to folks. Things get a little sad as the film winds down, and he visits a couple of dingy little shops and street markets. Perhaps one of the most powerful things about Crumb was the fact that the film itself brought greater fame to its subject and to R. Crumb's younger brother Max Crumb (and perhaps would have brought fame to older brother Charles if he had survived). One gets the impression from these final moments that it's too late for Armstrong to make a comeback. The world is just too different. Armstrong lived nearly 20 more years after the making of this movie and kept on playing in small clubs to a devoted little audience. Likewise, Louie Bluie the film didn't get nearly the kind of attention or enthusiasm that Crumb earned, but now that it's out on this deluxe DVD, the world of Armstrong's music can reach us all.

Criterion's DVD is very impressive, although apparently it wasn't worthy of Blu-Ray consideration (the film is only 60 minutes long). Extras include a new commentary track by Zwigoff, 30 minutes of unused footage, some of Armstrong's illustrations, and a stills gallery. Critic Michael Sragow provides the liner notes, and Woody Allen also adds a quick written introduction.

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