Terry Zwigoff’s first film, the documentary Louie Bluie, is a profile of country-blues musician Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, and his longtime partner-in-crime guitarist Ted Bogan. If that sounds like a relatively conventional debut from the director who later brought you films like Crumb, Ghost World, and Bad Santa, just wait. It’s not long before the film takes you to the land of the ribald outsider that Zwigoff has explored throughout his career. Zwigoff frequently examines the fine artistic line between the commercial and the personal, and that all begins here. Who knows how things might have turned out if he hadn’t turned down the offer to direct Elf?
Armstrong admits to feeling like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and no wonder. His talents are not limited to the mandolin and violin playing that crosses over musical genres – he’s also an accomplished illustrator. Zwigoff laments that documentaries of similar artists “seemed so sanitized, even though sexuality and humor are such an integral part of that music.” Louie Bluie changed that, not just with Armstrong’s proficiency as salty raconteur, but with his visual art. If there’s another documentary that features footage of early jug-band music *and* an artists’s volume like Armstrong’s copiously collaged and illustrated The ABC’s of Pornography, well, to borrow a phrase from Orson Welles, I’ll go down on it.
According to Criterion’s typically informative notes, Zwigoff happened on his subject through his obsession with the music of the 1920’s, a passion he shared with Robert Crumb. This was not just the love of a collector; Zwigoff played musical saw and mandolin in Crumb’s revival band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders. It was the director’s fascination with a record called “State Street Rag,” (not performed in the released film, it appears among the DVD’s extras of unused footage) that led him to Armstrong, and a filmmaking adventure that would span several years. The resultant sixty-minute film is concise and rambling at the same time, a time-capsule and an inspiration for musicians and outsiders for generations to come.
Criterion’s notes suggests that Armstrong’s work marks him as an outsider artist, but why pigeonhole him? The charm and vitality of his drawings are undeniable. He’s no more outsider than Robert Crumb – underground before underground was cool.