Louie Bluie: Criterion Collection
August 2, 2010
Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff got his start making documentaries and Louie Bluie (1985) was his first film. In the mid-1970s, he worked at the Department of Social Services in San Francisco and during his off-hours played in the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a band formed by underground comic book artist Robert Crumb that was devoted to 1920s music. Zwigoff also obsessively collected ’20s and 1930s recordings – a characteristic of Steve Buscemi’s character in Zwigoff’s first fictional film Ghost World (2001). It was through his love of old timey music that he discovered obscure country-blues musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, a member of the last known black string band in America.
Initially, Zwigoff was just going to write an article on Armstrong but after interviewing him at his home over the course of three days, Zwigoff thought that there might be a film idea there. Over the course of five years, he made the film and also learned how to make one along the way. Armstrong starts things off by recounting an amusing anecdote about how he got his nickname. We see him jamming and reminiscing with fellow musicians, bantering back and forth like long-time friends. We also see his love of painting and how he got into creating them. Armstrong also shows off a book he wrote and illustrated entitled, The ABC’s of Pornography.
Zwigoff clearly has affection for his subject and the music but this documentary is not some starry-eyed puff-piece. Armstrong is not shy about sharing his views and opinions on a wide variety of things – religion, women’s posteriors and so on. However, there’s a twinge of sadness one feels watching Louie Bluie when you realize that once all these guys are gone there will be no one around to make the kind of music they did. At least Zwigoff’s documentary will be a testimony to Armstrong’s legacy and place in the history of music.
There is an audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff. He’s thankful to the folks at the Criterion Collection for preserving Louie Bluie as the film stock he shot it on was disintegrating and would not have lasted too much longer. He goes into the origins of the project and how he discovered Armstrong’s music. Zwigoff points out that Armstrong’s artwork is reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s style of art and the musician eve did some drawings specifically for the film. Zwigoff tells some interesting stories about Armstrong and making the film in this informative commentary.
Also included is 32 minutes of “Unused Footage.” Included are more musical performances as well as Armstrong reading more passages from The ABC’s of Pornography. There is some really nice footage here and for such a short film one wonders why some of this was cut.
Finally, there is a “Stills Gallery” featuring behind-the-scenes photographs, movie posters and album covers as well as illustrations by Armstrong.