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Louie Bluie (DVD Review)

9 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 8/10/10
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Featuring Howard Armstrong.

Crumb established director Terry Zwigoff as an auteur, Ghost World confirmed this assertion about a thousand fold, Bad Santa could have come from only one person, and any minute of the ticklish if disappointing Art School Confidential could be could pegged as Zwigoff footage due to its choice of material and the movie’s attitude toward it.

For years I had gazed at Zwigoff’s too tiny filmography to see something called Louie Bluie from 1985, nine long years pre-Crumb, wondering, “What the hell is that?” Little seen but admired by Woody Allen (someone not known for embracing junk), it’s a 60-minute documentary on late country-blues musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, a man whose many talents included looking natural in an orange sport jacket and matching shirt (not easy to pull off) and being one of those rare non-military personnel to look cool in a beret.

Themes and passions Zwigoff would develop in future films are here: the love for funky old-school music; idiosyncratic art and artists; the subculture that collects old 78 recordings. There is, however, nothing about Santa Claus in this release, which Criterion is releasing as a companion to its new DVD and Blu-rays of Crumb.

Armstrong, who died in 2003, hailed from Tennessee — the son of a clergyman who gave up music for a higher calling, though Howard himself compares preachers to pimps here (he seems to have been a child who had a run-in or two with authority figures). Bilingual and just as eclectic musically, he also devoted himself to decades of creating copious cartoons and watercolors — some of which contributed to a massive volume he kept for his own and close friends’ perusal (until he ended up giving it to Zwigoff) called The ABC’s of Pornography. Cleopatra makes an appearance in it, and so does at least one wife leaning over a hot stove.

Though the result isn’t exactly like Martin Scorsese’s even more riveting American Boy from 1978 in which a single interviewee has to carry the whole show, Armstrong is obviously the make-or-break component who has to make the undertaking work. Both in music and sassy conversation, he is joined by a few old cronies who have probably seen better days — though Armstrong himself still looks like someone who is merely between mandolin or fiddle gigs. Given what writer/director Jim Jarmusch did for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train, the filmmaker could have had a big-screen field day with this ornery force of nature. We also see Armstrong keep superb musical company with a couple simpatico and syncopative women here, who help illustrate just how much music just a few strings and a hard-driving piano can generate.

Critic Michael Sragow’s liner notes are full of welcome information about the production and of how Zwigoff basically cleaned out his then life savings to make a movie that didn’t stand chance of getting wide distribution. Zwigoff’s own DVD commentary is very entertaining — and definitely frank about how he didn’t always know what he was doing when he basically took on the this project for love.

The print looks better than I expected with lots of snappy color, but this was a stroke of luck. Zwigoff says the film was in extremely degraded physical shape and that if Criterion hadn’t elected to take on this project, it wouldn’t have had long to live. Thus, it’s a pleasure to see that the color has a lot of snap — all the better with which to capture the vitality of Louie Bluie’s threads.

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