The rise of the music documentary coincided with filmmakers admiring their idols. As Scorsese followed The Band, or Spike Jonze followed The Beastie Boys, it was only a matter of time before their favorite musicians approached them to document their lives. Rock never had much trouble finding documentarians to cover the genre. After all, they were wild and crazy on tour. Yet other famous musicians, including the iconoclast Louis Armstrong, had to wait for decades before a behind-the-scenes documentary could emerge. Directed by Sacha Jenkins (Fresh Dressed, ‘Burn Motherfucker, Burn!’), Louis Armstrong: Black and Blues provides an intimate view of the virtuoso.
Jenkins lets Armstrong speak for himself by telling the story of Armstrong’s life through personal video and tape recordings. The famed trumpet player recorded hours of footage, restored and scrubbed to allow for surprisingly clear narration. As he tells his stories of growing up, becoming a world-renowned musician, and many instances of racial discrimination, a clear picture of Armstrong emerges. Some have questioned his role in Civil Rights, potentially calling him someone who played up his personality for white audiences. Clearly, Armstrong not only struggled with this idea but actively sought ways to help his community.
Much of the footage assembled by Jenkins is not only new but stunningly exciting to watch. Perhaps the most exciting clip comes when we see Armstrong in the studio, supposedly the only such clip. Additionally, Armstrong’s stories drive home his legacy as a unique storyteller. Not only was he a world-class raconteur in his own right, but he experienced life in a way that allowed him to openly express his emotions. While other self-narrations could pull a punch, Armstrong’s openness is refreshing. We also learn that Louis could curse with the best of them, dropping profanity with confidence and style.
The pacing from Jenkins ensures we never get too bogged down in any singular aspect of Armstrong’s life. A figure like Armstrong, his influence can be felt around the world. Yet many might see him as an American phenomenon. When he showcased his talents on television and on film, he gained a foothold in American pop culture. He was popular in black America and gained popularity across racial and ethnic lines. This gave him unique power as he could hold the attention of mass audiences.
Perhaps most surprising are moments when popular black leaders explain Armstrong’s greatest strengths. When James Baldwin hears Armstrong’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jenkins frames the true power of the musician. After all, while others had the written word, Armstrong’s raw emotion comes through in his musical prowess. Black and Blues would benefit from showing rather than telling; there simply may not be enough footage to convey this powerful truth. Towards the end of the film, some tapes reveal how much Civil Rights were on his mind. While Jenkins attempts to contextualize the time period around integration with Louis’ music, Black and Blues strays a little too far from its subject for too long.
For fans of Louis Armstrong or jazz music, Louis Armstrong: Black and Blues is a must-watch. Not only does it delve into the musician’s brilliance, but it also shines a light on his importance as a man. It can be easy to forget the small steps a man can make that change the world. For Armstrong, every step was monumental. It’s about time that others have the exposure and pleasure of enjoying his incredible story.