“You’d suck the sweat off a grape!”
“If I had one biscuit and you hadn’t’ve eaten in a month, I’d break it in half an’ eat both pieces!”
“Preacher’s a reg’lar legalised pimp! … A lotta people didn’t care too much about Jesus cos he was too humble an’ meek! Who in the fuck cares about somebody nodding his damn head when a guy’s gettin’ ready to kick his ass?”
These quotes and many others are what make Terry Zwigoff‘s feature debut (a portrait of musician, artist and raconteur Howard ‘Louie Bluie’ Armstrong) such a treat. Similar to Errol Morris’ equally esoteric Vernon, Florida, Louie Bluie captures a particular American vernacular that you don’t get to hear nearly often enough. A cadence and a way with words that sounds wholly American. The British can keep their wit and irony and the French can stick their language of love because there is something about that way of talking that is so filled with life experience and dirt under the fingernails. There’s also almost no way of saying that without sounding like a patronising twat but believe me, I say it with genuine affection despite limited knowledge.
Apparently, Zwigoff had had no desire to be a film director and certainly didn’t know how to go about making a film. So it’s all credit to his natural skills – and presumably to his collaborators (editor Victoria Lewis and cinematographers John Knoop and Chris Li) too – that the film feels like it is simply made rather than just simple. It has that feeling of the direct cinema films of D.A. Pennbaker (Monterey Pop) and the Maysles (Salesman) but only because Zwigoff presumably had no real idea of how to tart up the shot and saw the protagonists’ natural surroundings as enough. Why shoot those Detroit and Tennessee locales any other way? The visuals complement the language. This culminates in the reveal of Armstrong’s magum opus, the breeze-block-sized tome, ‘The ABCs of Pornography‘, which genuinely looks like one the 20th century’s great works of art but sadly (though fair enoughly) Armstrong’s wife did not want the book published, so as of 2016, we still can’t see it. Shame, because it looks like a beautiful, dirtier, American version of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. With folk fables, devilry and life stories compiled into a vast, colourful volume of filth!
The film doesn’t really have any great structure or theme besides Zwigoff’s desire to showcase his musical heroes but what comes out of that is a rare depiction of possibly lost Americana. Not only that but a cult figure who represents a bygone era when more artists worked at being great at what they did and hoping that an audience would find them rather than compartmentalising their talents into part of a showcase to please the narrow dictates of mainstream appeal. Throughout the film, though, I couldn’t help but think of the contemporary English comedian, Wil Hodgson and then felt safe that that spirit of Armstrong and his compadres still lives on…