San Francisco filmmaker Terry Zwigoff’s first cinematic effort, the 1985 Louie Bluie, is a wry, ribald, and magical portrait of the country-blues string band player and irrepressible raconteur Howard Armstrong (a.k.a. Louie Bluie). This catchy, engaging sixty-minute documentary, a clattering stream of anecdotes, badinage, and jam sessions, captures an outsize personality in all his bawdy glory and aesthetic power, celebrating a remarkable, life-enhancing—no, life-catalyzing—force. At the same time, Zwigoff brings back a forgotten age of ecstatic grassroots music-making, marked by runaway creativity and exuberance, and traces some of its tangled roots in Tennessee and Chicago. He does this all so artfully that you never see his molding hand. But it’s there.
Armstrong, then seventy-five (he died in 2003, at age ninety-four), strikes the keynote when he announces that he often feels he’s several men rolled into one, and sometimes even a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He’s referring to his multiple talents as a master fiddler and mandolin player, a painter of what is now called American visionary art, and the writer-illustrator and folk philosopher of his homemade magnum opus, ABC’s of Pornography. But in Zwigoff’s movie, Armstrong also functions as a lord of misrule and an improbable muse. He becomes, for Zwigoff, an antic comic hero, an upbeat variation on Aesop’s grasshopper.
Devotees of “old-time” American music often elevate the musicians who stay closest to their own particular heritage. Not Terry Zwigoff, and not Louie Bluie. Armstrong grew up in the small town of La Follette, Tennessee, and within the traditions of black church music and the blues, which he embraced. But he also absorbed white popular music, country sounds, and the ethnic rhythms of Hungarian, Polish, and Italian immigrants. He was part of an African American music explosion that included jug bands and makeshift groups of many varieties (one clip in the film shows a musician playing a cane as if it were a fife), and he performed for audiences of all kinds. Armstrong could shift his repertoire to suit the occasion; he knew, for instance, that if he played low-down blues at a white political banquet, the officials or their hosts would “put some heat on you that you couldn’t stand.” His flexibility came in handy up north when, as he recounts, he wandered into a bellicose Italian bar in 1935 right after Joe Louis knocked down Primo Carnera. Armstrong memorialized the occasion in a cartoon-style painting of his group entering the Chicago bar without paying attention to the fight poster outside (they were just going around “pulling doors,” looking for work). “The atmosphere was hostile,” Armstrong says, until he started rattling off some of his “Tennessee Italian.” And fortunately, unlike the band in The Godfather, Part II, his ensemble knew some old Italian songs. While Armstrong reminisces about the incident in the backseat of a car, Zwigoff intercuts shots of his painting with period stills of tough guys smoking stogies and downing shots in a saloon—the atmosphere of comic dread is palpable. Throughout the film, the director creates a tangy continuity between the present and the past.
The movie reminds us of the unselfconscious diversity of America at its best—and the spend-it-all vibrancy of our least pretentious artists and entertainers. Rather than mourn the loss of Armstrong’s musical tradition or bemoan the neglect of him and his peers, Zwigoff restores their world. We see and hear a Bluebird 78 of Armstrong on mandolin and Ted Bogan on guitar, collaborating on “State Street Rag.” Then Zwigoff cuts to them picking up the tune roughly five decades after they recorded it. Armstrong recalls a producer’s telling him that if they “played any faster, the thing would catch on fire.”
Armstrong’s showmanship is infectious, whether or not he has an instrument in hand. The way he talks is as juicy as the way he plays. When he points to a man’s “32-20s,” he’s referring to the fellow’s teeth. His insults are so cheerfully hyperbolic that they flatter more than sting his victims. He says Bogan, a ladies’ man, would look at women like “a one-eyed cat watchin’ two rat holes.” (He also contends that when Bogan had a thirst for alcohol, he would “drink the sweat off a grape.”) Armstrong is the embodiment of rampant invention.
When he set out to find the mysterious figure known to him only as Louie Bluie, Zwigoff had no movie ambitions. It was the middle of the 1970s, and while everyone else was supposed to be indulging in the excesses of the Me Generation, he was manning a desk at the Department of Social Services in San Francisco, working on Medi-Cal eligibility. But since 1972, he had also been playing saw, cello, and mandolin for the Cheap Suit Serenaders, Robert Crumb’s group, devoted to 1920s music. And he was a dogged collector of 1920s and 1930s recordings. He was particularly obsessed with “State Street Rag,” which he had taped so that he could play it back repeatedly, and slowly, in order to catch all the notes and pick them out on his own mandolin. “The record took on the mystique for me of something really special. I don’t know how else to describe it,” Zwigoff says. His first idea was to write a feature article on Louie Bluie for the London-based publication Old Time Music. But he needed to track down his subject. “State Street Rag” didn’t credit Louie Bluie by his real name. Luckily, “Ted Bogan” was not a pseudonym. Zwigoff looked him up in the Chicago phone book and, sure enough, he was there—and Bogan put Zwigoff in touch with his friend and partner Howard Armstrong.
Zwigoff found his dream protagonist living in subsidized housing in Detroit. He went there with his tape recorder and a fifty-dollar bill for Armstrong. They talked for three days. “Occasionally, he’d get up and fry a liverwurst sandwich and turn on The Price Is Right,” Zwigoff remembers. Armstrong was “such a larger-than-life character, such a big persona.” The music, the personalities, and the string of weird coincidences that had carried him to that place made Zwigoff feel there was a movie in the story.
Armstrong, Bogan, and their longtime buddy and collaborator Carl Martin had reunited in the early 1970s. “Their band was then called Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong,” Zwigoff says. “They played pop tunes like ‘Summertime,’ ‘Lady Be Good.’ Also some blues and instrumentals. [There] was only a hint of their former greatness in this organization.” Zwigoff thought Martin could be the key to the movie’s success—“He was a sharp, funny guy and a really good musician”—the perfect foil for Armstrong. But right before he started filming, Martin died. As an alternate sidekick for Armstrong, Zwigoff had Bogan, but “Bogan was on his last legs.” Despite the power of Zwigoff’s obsession, the project looked rocky. Nevertheless, he pushed forward. He hadn’t been able to get permission to film in the housing project in Detroit, so he took photographs of Armstrong’s apartment, hauled some of Armstrong’s stuff from there to Chicago, rented a corner of a warehouse, and fabricated a version of the apartment in the new location.
But Zwigoff still needed a lively second banana for Armstrong. He had the idea to call another musical hero—and another country-blues mandolin player—James “Yank” Rachell, who was living in Indianapolis. Rachell had never met Armstrong or Bogan, but, Zwigoff says, “the rapport was instant.” On a roll, Zwigoff invited Chicago jazz legend “Banjo” Ikey Robinson, who had performed with Louis Armstrong and recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, to play with them. “When I went to meet him, he was living in horrible conditions on the South Side, a terrible apartment, and his wife was in a wheelchair.” Once Zwigoff got Robinson together with the group, “within two minutes, they were all the best of friends.”
Zwigoff’s baptism as a director stretched for five years, as the film took on a life of its own. After a week of shooting in Chicago, he went back to San Francisco to work with editor Victoria Lewis. In the cutting room, he learned how to be a filmmaker (“Having your life savings burn through a camera in a week is a good way to learn very quickly how to be economical in shooting and getting coverage and cutaways,” he notes). Armstrong then recommended that they travel to Tennessee, where they shot around Knoxville and Clinton as well as La Follette. The movie premiered at the Los Angeles FILMEX festival in 1985 (the event’s last year) and competed for the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at Sundance in 1986. But it never received a broad release. The payoff for Zwigoff was in the art of it. With Louie Bluie, he emerged full-blown as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker. The alert, carnal consciousness of this movie would later be felt in his Crumb (1995), Ghost World (2001), Bad Santa (2003), and Art School Confidential (2006).
Louie Bluie obsessed Zwigoff first as a mandolin virtuoso, not a man, so it’s fitting that Zwigoff took Armstrong’s stage name, not his real name, for the title of the movie. Even the finished film pivots on his performing persona, touching on Armstrong’s private life mostly as the fuel for his creative personality. Comfortable in his skin and confident as a storyteller, Louie Bluie effortlessly merges earthiness and imagination. In the first shot, he shaves, in his undershirt, with a naked razor blade; in the second, he talks to the camera in a posed close-up, explaining how he got his moniker: an undertaker’s daughter he was interested in told him, “I know you Armstrong, but you’re not the Louie Armstrong, that Louie; you’re just plain old Louie Bluie.”
As the film unfolds, Armstrong goads Bogan back to friskiness whenever he starts to droop. The two strum out their old tunes and rag on each other, and Rachell responds sardonically to their banter. It’s as if they’ve brought the southern art of porch sitting up north and inside. As Zwigoff follows Armstrong back to La Follette, we learn that he played in his first string band with three brothers. We get a sense of the ubiquity of music in La Follette and the surrounding hills in the early decades of the last century. Then, in an oddly seductive circular fashion, we head back north, as Armstrong retraces the route he took to Chicago. Midway through, Robinson joins the party and the playing. This kind of movie is usually described as “a musical odyssey,” but that’s a misnomer here. It may be an odyssey for us, but for Armstrong and Zwigoff, it’s a loony yet lucid picaresque. It has no taint of self-importance. It’s ebullient and open-ended. What holds it together is the funky romanticism of old-time music-making and the funky ingenuity of Zwigoff’s moviemaking.
Zwigoff now says, “I’d seen a number of documentaries of country-blues musicians, and they seemed so sanitized, even though sexuality and humor are such an integral part of that music.” Louie Bluie turned out to be the perfect subject to tell the unexpurgated story. “I never knew about ABC’s of Pornography until midway through filming,” says Zwigoff. “Then one day, Howard pulled me aside and showed it to me, and my jaw dropped just like Ikey’s does in the film when he shows it to him. It’s a great, rich book.” A Rabelaisian compendium of inked cartoons and watercolors, handwritten stories and collages, full of agriculture, autobiography, and folktales, as well as erotic fables, ABC’s of Pornography helped Zwigoff capture the down-home wisdom and erotic wit that fueled classic country-blues. Zwigoff seized on Armstrong’s fecundity and gusto and made them ripple through the movie. The action in Chicago may be staged and the communal spirit brewed up, but the emotions are as authentic and vivacious as the music.
Zwigoff originally saw his film as a bleak piece of cinema verité contrasting the musicians’ current lives with their rosy artistic pasts. “But the film went in its own direction,” he says. Actually, Zwigoff was responding to Armstrong’s native genius with his own, making Louie Bluie a two-way triumph of sensibility.