Monday, July 4, 2011

#532: Louie Bluie

(Terry Zwigoff, 1985)

Louie Bluie is a thoroughly entertaining entry in the subgenre of documentaries centered around one noteworthy protagonist. Within this subgenre are two types of subjects: famous or historically notable people - think General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait or even Zwigoff's follow-up to this film, Crumb - and quirky or unique individuals that are interesting enough to carry a film. Louie Bluie focuses on the latter type, an obscure blues musician named Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong.

Armstrong is an incredible musician, a folk artist, an impressive calligrapher, and a witty, charming older man with a fascinating life story - basically the perfect subject for a documentary. He's also another reminder of how many wildly talented people end up as also-rans commercially. So much of what we deem artistic success can be attributed to the luck of timing - knowing the right people, getting the right break, and, um, not being born black in the American South before 1940.

Louie Bluie was announced along with Crumb, Zwigoff's much-higher-profile breakthrough documentary of the famous counter-culture comic artist. It might seem reasonable to wonder - had Zwigoff not requested that the two films be released separately - if Criterion would have made Louie Bluie an extra on Crumb, as they have done with lesser-known first films in the past. Two things make me happy they didn't go this way even if they could: aside from superficial comparisons (folk art, marginalized subjects) the two films are almost totally different in both theme and tone and more importantly Louie Bluie stands on its own rather well. In fact, it might be my favorite of the two films - on a macro level, it's a love letter to a generation of artists who were often taken for granted and too quickly forgotten. But as a work that is quietly contained and lacking in ambition in the most appealing way, Louie Bluie is a simple document of a fascinating man that can now reach an audience that can appreciate it.

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