Terry Zwigoff’s 1986 documentary Louie Bluie offers a portrait of a restless, tirelessly agreeable, creative spirit who quickly learned he had to be adaptable if he wanted remain an artist and also eat dinner every night. Born in Tennessee in 1909, Howard Armstrong played with string bands and medicine shows and learned to play whatever music audiences wanted to hear on virtually every instrument with strings. In one anecdote, Armstrong—nicknamed “Louie Bluie” by an early admirer—talks about getting by in Chicago by speaking “Tennessee Italian” and playing songs he learned from immigrants back home. Seldom seen without an instrument or a pen in his hands, he’s a man driven to create, but also adept at using his art to make a living.
It never brought him fame and fortune, however. Zwigoff’s film finds the then-75-year-old Armstrong, who died in 2003 at age 94, living in a modest Chicago apartment and playing to small club audiences. Some of them collect obscure 78 records, so they know his name, and his bandmates’. Zwigoff shares the collectors’ passion, but his debut film looks beneath the crackle and mystique of old shellac to find forgotten stories. Fortunately, stories are another of Armstrong’s lines. He rambles tirelessly and skillfully, talking about growing up where “the houses were so close together, you could piss out one window and puke out the other,” and telling stories about the fellow musicians with whom he still played at the time. Those include singer-guitarist Ted Bogan, whose unassuming manner gives no suggestion of the womanizing past that earned him the nickname “Black Gable.”
Armstrong emerges as an extraordinary man navigating a mundane world. A talented artist and calligrapher in addition to his other skills, he worked steadily in an era that crossed musical genres freely, then wound up largely forgotten once that era passed. As much joy as Armstrong and others take in recalling the past, their romantic tales of their past contrast starkly with Zwigoff’s shots of them eating Kentucky Fried Chicken dinners with plastic silverware. Zwigoff’s film tells another story behind all the stories it contains: Here is a man who played transcendently, never stopped making art, and would happily talk about it. He’s extraordinary and obscure, just waiting to be discovered by someone who’s looking.
Key features: Zwigoff provides an informative commentary and a half-hour of deleted scenes, including several performances.