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Would it be possible to make a comprehensive film about Louis Armstrong that ran under five hours? Ten? You could spend that long listening to serious people talk about him only in terms of American race relations, finally arriving at a stopping point only to realize you’d barely mentioned the music he made.
In Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, Sacha Jenkins is undaunted by the complexity of his subject, plunging ahead with swagger and not worrying if we have unanswered questions at the end. A delightful experience for jazz buffs and more than an eye-opener for any youngsters who barely know who Armstrong was, it’s worth applauding just for its belief that it can meaningfully touch on private life, public persona, musical legacy and everything else — even if, on each front, it leaves one wanting more.
Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues
Release date: October 28 (Apple TV+)
Director: Sacha Jenkins
Rated R, 1 hour 46 minutes
Beyond its value to newbs, the doc represents a welcome opportunity to talk with friends about topics you might’ve processed long ago (intelligently or not) and never pondered again. Are you one of those hardcore jazz fans who could never take Armstrong’s era-defining early recordings seriously because, for decades, he was so beloved by squares? Do you think he brought Black and white Americans closer together, or that his onstage people-pleasing was a betrayal of those pushing for progress? The movie doesn’t really suggest an answer for any big question, but it contributes a lot just by letting others air their own, sometimes contradictory feelings.
Wynton Marsalis, for instance, admits he wanted nothing to do with Armstrong’s music when he was a young man in New Orleans. He’d seen enough to write him off as a kind of traitor or fool, laughing along with white audiences who might spit on him in another setting. But he eventually grappled with the difficulty of Armstrong’s solos, and realized that his style as an entertainer might also not be what it seemed.
About those solos: This is not a work of musicology, and if you want someone to explain how Armstrong changed jazz, look elsewhere. The most specific observation here is that the young man could hit higher notes on the cornet than his peers, and that this was so popular he started to do it a lot. Technique aside, Jenkins traces the player’s career path a bit more carefully, but even here, there’s too much ground to cover. We hear a good bit about Armstrong’s time in the King Oliver band, for instance, but his time with Fletcher Henderson (hardly an obscure bandleader) is either entirely absent or mentioned so quickly an attentive viewer missed it.
In any event, Armstrong was soon a big enough star to eclipse everyone he’d played with, at least in the eyes of the popular press. (How’d that happen? Go buy a book.) To many people, how and what he played were no longer the point; he was now a personality, irresistible around the world, and his friendliness rankled many politically minded youth.
Here is where Jenkins’ film excels, both digging up enough talk-show and similar footage to see how comfortable white celebrities felt around him, and finding the unguarded moments in which he discussed his uglier interactions with white folks. While we’re piecing together our own thoughts, we hear enlightening clips of interviews with Ossie Davis, Amiri Baraka and others, telling stories of how their takes on Armstrong (or their friends’) evolved. Marsalis, who’d written him off, now believes Armstrong was “more in the forefront” than other jazz musicians in making public statements on, for instance, school integration; Davis’ mind was changed simply by catching a glimpse of the entertainer’s face when he thought nobody was watching.
Then there are Armstrong’s tapes — shelves full of reel-to-reels he made of personal conversations and diary-like notes. Using plenty of colorful language (the reason, presumably, for the film’s ridiculous R rating), he tells stories about what it was like to be adored by people who, to his face, would admit he was the only Black person they liked. We see the tug-of-war between principle and pragmatism, hear how he made stands when he felt he could and helped in other ways when he didn’t. (Activists might have thought he should march alongside them, for instance, but if a racist cop happened to hit him “in the chops,” Armstrong could be finished as a trumpeter — and unable to keep sending money to the people complaining about his absence.)
Unwilling to make this a single-issue movie, Jenkins also touches on everything from Armstrong’s close relationship with his fourth wife to the modest home he loved for decades in Queens to, um, his enthusiasm for herbal laxatives. Some points are more important than others, obviously. But they all add brushstrokes to an unfinished portrait of one of 20th-century America’s most essential characters.
Distributor: Apple TV+
Production company: Imagine Documentaries
Director: Sacha Jenkins
Producers: Sara Bernstein, Justin Wilkes, Sacha Jenkins, Julie Anderson
Executive Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Michele Anthony, David Blackman
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Editors: Jason Pollard, Alma Herrera-Pazmiño
Composer: Terence Blanchard
Rated R, 1 hour 46 minutes
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