Louie Bluie

January 01, 1970

(The Criterion Collection; 60 minutes)

 

www.criterion.com

 

BY MARY LEARY

 

Art, cultural movements, and grassroots stirrings that envision
and embody a rich way of life for “the common man” (and woman) tend to evoke
gut-level reverence from this quarter. Accordingly, a pause was indicated after
initially viewing this film. Even if the exuberance of fanzine writing weren’t
pretty much extinct, jumping up and down and crying, “This is amazing!” over
and over only works sometimes, with certain readers. And there is no particular
moment or place in Louie Bluie when its
subject, visual artist and mandolin/guitar/fiddle master Howard Armstrong, says
anything about a determinist cultural movement.

 

But as this rich, ingeniously woven document unfolds, one
realizes that before Robert Crumb drew his first line there was another trippy
artist in an incredibly similar vein.  When it falls from Armstrong’s lips, one also
realizes that a phrase heretofore associated more or less with
Crumb/hippies/San Francisco, “Different strokes for different folks,” was uttered
by musicians and hipsters at least 15 years previous. The film underscores the
sometimes anorexic girth of the line between blues and country emanating from
the deep South. Without much being said on the subject, it showcases artists so
committed to their form, and lifestyle, that living through racist policies and
attitudes was treated like just another challenge.

 

While Terry Zwigoff’s more recent work (Art School Confidential, Bad
Santa
) has received mixed reviews, between 1986 and 2001 he fashioned a
trio of films with staying power: this one, Crumb,
and Ghost World. Two of those focus
on offbeat cultural strata and/or the struggles of its protagonists to find
themselves within their environments. But “Louie Bluie” radiated such charisma,
one might say the world sometimes adapted itself to him. We see this in scenes
like the one where his ex’s sister keeps cracking up at his stories and can’t
wait to jump into a gospel jam with him. We see it when Armstrong interacts
with merchants in a Chicago marketplace. We see it when he performs: Armstrong
exemplifies the musician who elevates other players while being open to
whatever the moment has in store. And our eyes pop with it when he shares his
intricate, comical and revealing (of the male psyche) masterwork, The ABC’s of Pornography, with
astonished page-turners.

 

Great art is often marked by serendipity. Zwigoff’s
commentary reveals the meant-to-be manner in which the documentary took shape.
Michael Sragow’s insightful liner notes knit together Armstrong’s full-color
drawings in the booklet accompanying the DVD. We learn how “Banjo” Ikey
Robinson got sprung from a depressing downward spiral to play with Armstrong. Guitarist
Ted Bogan’s failing health and spirit were revived by his involvement in the
project.

 

Even folks with no interest in jug bands, vintage folk,
American history, or stream-of-consciousness artwork should know that Louie Bluie, rescued by this reissue from
obscurity and the likely death of “vinegar syndrome” (disintegration of the
original ‘86 print), beautifully presents  the story of a phenomenal talent. I laughed
and cried, often at once, throughout. Sometimes it was in response to
Armstrong’s way with words, as when he describes an aroused man (“He got harder
than a Chinese arithmetic problem”), a friend with a liking for wine (“He’d
drink the sweat off a grape”), or when he comments that the “supply of talk
exceeds the demand.” It’s all pulled together so lovingly that no one should
feel ashamed for jumping up and down about this film. It gives Armstrong, who
died in 2003 at 94, the treatment so often owed, but too rarely paid, to American
roots players.

 

Oh, and among the musical interludes there’s a pretty
swoon-inducing rendition of a tune penned in 1931, “Wrap Your Troubles in
Dreams.” It’s still on the money.

 

Special Features:

Audio commentary featuring Zwigoff

30 minutes of unused footage

Illustrations by Howard Armstrong

Stills Gallery

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