Criterion // 1985 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // August 4th, 2010
&qout;Then she sauntered over to me and she says, 'You're Armstrong. I know you're Armstrong. But you're not Louie Armstrong, that Louie. You're just plain ol' Louie Bluie, that's what you are.' And so I used the name to record under later.&qout; -- Howard Armstrong, on how he got his nickname.
Many years ago, before he directed such brilliance as Crumb and Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff bought a record. As a collector of old 78s, this recording of &qout;State Street Rag&qout; was one of many country blues cuts he'd amassed. As an amateur mandolin player, however, the song blew his mind. The performances from all the players were outstanding, but in particular, the mandolin player stood out. Zwigoff wanted to hear more, but had no way to identify the performer who was credited as Louie Bluie, an obvious pseudonym. He did have the name of the guitar player and, based on the hunch that the title referred to State Street in Chicago, he got a phone book and called the listing for Ted Bogan. Not only was he the man Zwigoff was looking for, Bogan put him in contact with Louie Bluie himself.
Zwigoff only intended to interview the man, real name Howard Armstrong, for an article in an obscure old-time music magazine. When he met Armstrong, though, he knew that would not be sufficient. With a deep love of the music, his life savings, and absolutely no experience with filmmaking, Zwigoff set about to make a documentary instead. The fruit of that labor was Louie Bluie, one of the single most enjoyable hours I have ever spent watching film.
I'm a big fan of old country blues and, when I requested this disc, I expected to see some red hot pickin' and sawin'; I was familiar with some of the featured names, but not the subject himself. Little did I know that Howard &qout;Louie Bluie&qout; Armstrong is a multi-instrumentalist with virtuosic talent and a wit to match. Most of the film takes place in a mock-up of Armstrong's apartment (Zwigoff couldn't get permission to shoot in the real one), while he talks smack with Bogan and James &qout;Yank&qout; Rachel, a legendary mandolin player and guitarist. Most of the lines aren't quite suitable for a family-friendly site, but trust me when I say you will enhance your insult lexicon by watching this film.
In his commentary, Zwigoff acknowledges that the negative of Louie Bluie had begun to deteriorate. Had Criterion not stepped in when they did, there would never have been a release at all. Thank all that is good that they did, because this film is an absolute gem, essential viewing for blues fans and Zwigoff's cult audience. Really, though, this is one of the few films that I could comfortably recommend to anybody who isn't offended by a little ribald banter between old men. When not in stitches listening to these guys talk, I sat amazed at their impeccable playing and reveled in how much fun I was having watching them. You owe it to yourself to watch Louie Bluie.
Given the problems with the source material, Criterion's disc is as good as one could expect. With surprisingly little damage to the print and a minimum of grain, I never would have guessed it was on the verge of oblivion. It shows it's age some, though, with its washed out colors and inconsistent black levels. The transfer is up to Criterion's usual standard of quality, with no errors to speak of anywhere. The mono sound mix is nothing special, but it's free of noise and fairly bright, especially during the musical numbers. For extras, we start with Zwigoff's audio commentary, which is consistently interesting and entertaining. He has a deep love for both the music and the men who made it, and it shows in how much he is still engaged in Armstrong's music even today. Our next feature is the best kind: additional footage of old men talking smack and playing blues. This collection runs a little over thirty minutes and features some of the funniest stories and some of the hottest music on the entire disc, including a cooking rendition of &qout;State Street Blues,&qout; the song that started it all. These guys may not have the chops they did four decades earlier, but they still go pretty hard.
I can't recommend this highly enough. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage