Image Entertainment // 1970 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // January 27th, 2010
A musical maestro proves why he's the best.
It was set up as a surprise, a communal celebration between jazz legend Louis Armstrong, the many musicians he influenced and collaborated with, the city he loved and immortalized so well (New Orleans), and the long standing traditions preserved by the Newport Jazz Festival. What happened on this eventful day in 1970, however, was indeed the stuff of myth. Armstrong, then a frail, if feisty 70 year old, agreed to play a set of some of his best known songs with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Owens, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, and Ray Nance providing backup and solo spots. Luckily, event organizer George Wein had the foresight to recognize a historical summit when he saw one, and contacted a local camera crew to film the proceedings. Interspersed with interview segments with Armstrong reminiscing and reacting, the eventual document of the rehearsal and the set was entitled Good Evening Ev'rybody. Thanks to the preservationist aspect of digital reproduction, Image Entertainment is giving DVD lovers worldwide a chance to experience the performance documentary -- and it is special indeed.
The first portion offers Armstrong arriving, slight frame wrapped in a dress shirt, golf hat and shorts, ready to run through a few of his signature tunes. We see "Hello Dolly" (for which he won a 1964 Grammy Award) in brief, as well as snippets of "Pennies from Heaven" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." Armstrong is loose and causal, such an old pro at this point that he can muff many of the lyrics and scat randomly throughout and still sound like a god. For those looking for a little of the old Satchmo magic on the trumpet, beware: there is no instrumental work here. Clearly, his health and other issues prevent him from that level of participation. Yet he is quick to point out a missed note or two with favorites Hackett and Davison, and truly enjoys watching the other musicians improvise and wail. As stated before, Armstrong sits down to offer a brief overview of his career, where he came from, how he met many of the people featured, and even provides a little critical insight into the jazz ideal (it's all about "phrasing and tone").
The second half of the 92 minute running time is taken up with the actual concert itself. As promised, Armstrong is not announced, and the individuals we met before offer their own often moving testimonials before settling in for a song or two. The Preservation Hall Jazz Bands revs things up with a brilliant reading of "I Want a Little Girl," while Gillespie has them rolling in the aisles with his dead-on impression of Armstrong during "I'm Confessin'."As Hackett et al take turns with other classics like "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "Thanks a Million," "Them There Eyes," and "Ain't Misbehavin'," we keep waiting for the moment when Armstrong walks out on the stage. When he does -- to his signature tune "When It Sleepy Time Down South" -- Good Evening Ev'rybody explodes and never lets up. "Pops" shifts effortlessly into the previously mentioned "Pennies from Heaven" and tackles Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" in his own inimitable style. Things then go from great to grand as the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson, runs through such moving spirituals as "Let There Be Peace on Earth," "Come On Children, Let's Sing," and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." Armstrong returns for "Saints" and "Mack the Knife" before leaving us with a rehearsal bit of "What a Wonderful World."
This is indeed a stunning record of a mythic night in American music. Armstrong is often credited for making jazz the international artform it's known as today, and watching this pristine expression of pure performance, it's not hard to see why. Sure, Wein and co-director/co-producer Sidney J. Stiber don't do much more than move their 16mm camera in and among the players while they practice and/or perform, and most of the concert footage is stationary middle or awkwardly angled and up close. But even in this near flawless transfer (the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image does look great -- bright and colorful with lots of detail), it's the artistry that shows through. Watching Armstrong in rehearsal and then seeing him really turn it on come curtain time is magical. He has a brilliant grasp of his own musicianship. While purists might balk at the lack of a spiffed up sound mix (it's merely two channel Dolby Digital Mono, sadly), the bonus features give us a chance to see and hear even more backstage anecdotes and Armstrong insights.
In the bonus features, Wein comments that many thought Armstrong's special appearance that night might just be his last. They were right. The influential icon of American jazz passed away on July 6, 1971 -- a short time after appearing with many of his friends on the Newport stage. We are indeed lucky that the organizers felt a need to record this memorable moment for posterity. Without it, we might not have this touching tribute to one of our country's all time greats.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated