My wife gave this documentary the best capsule review last night: “It made you fall in love with the guy.”
Perhaps nothing more needs to be said.
But I earnestly want to send JAZZ LIVES readers to theatres (ideally) to watch this film. In 104 minutes, it offers a compact, fast-moving portrait of a man at once complicated and plain. It offers a generous sampling of music — most of it filmed performance. But it is far more than a filmed concert. It demonstrates the joy Louis so open-handedly created while revealing the rage and sadness inseparable from it.
We see him grin, we see him hit high notes, we see him sing soulfully, but this is not the cardboard caricature, not the man-child some have attacked. There is JEEPERS CREEPERS and YOU RASCAL YOU, but there is also SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD. Time after time, he comes forth as the Grave Wise Elder, pained and serious, the man who kept silent, choosing rather the cause of happiness.
The street isn’t always sunny. vividly, we see corrosive racism throughout his career, from his childhood to the 1931 Suburban Gardens; we hear Orval Faubus and hear from the reporters who caught Louis’ response to Little Rock. There is the Caucasian fan (one out of how many thousand) who tells Louis that he admires him but “doesn’t like Negroes.” We hear Louis say that his flag is a Black one, but we also hear him talk about the great honor of playing THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER.
And the information is stunningly first-hand: his written words and his voice — taken from the hours of private, uncensored, often scalding conversations he recorded on tape, for he was a man who knew that he would have a place “in the history books.” Sometimes his voice is world-weary, sometimes enraged, but there is no polite expurgation. The man comes through whole, a colossus of awareness and emotion.
Unlike the often hypnotic but sometimes gelatinous cinematography of Ken Burns’ JAZZ, this film is so packed with information — auditory, visual, emotional — that the screen is always busy. I have studied and idolized Louis my whole life and I was consistently surprised and elated by what was so generously offered. And the narration by rapper Nas is so emotionally right that it adds a great deal, subliminally reminding us that Louis was not always a senior citizen.
The range of the documentary is astounding. The cameo appearances by Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie are splendidly on target but we have seen those heroes before. I hoped Bobby Hackett would put in an appearance, and was thrilled that Count Basie did also.
But to hear the voices of Arche Shepp, Miles Davis, and Amiri Braka alongside Danny Barker, Barney Bigard, George James is a series of delightful shocks, showing just how many artists understood and respected Louis.
Thanks to the preeminent Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi, the film never loses its way in detail or inaccuracy. Jimi Hendrix makes a brief but telling appearance; senior eminence and friend-of-Louis Dan Morgenstern brings in James Baldwin and has some pointed comments as well. Lucille Armstrong and Lil Hardin tell hilarious loving tales. Swiss Kriss is here, the little Selmer trumpet, and so is “Mary Warner.”
I thought I might be one of the worst people to write a review of this documentary, because Louis has been a hero, an old friend, a beacon, a father-once-removed since childhood. So I braced myself for oversimplifications and inaccuracies. Given the title, I worried that the film would show Louis as undermined by racism (jazz chroniclers love tragic stories) without letting his essence blaze through. I thought it might tell the same dusty stories in order, making him mythical and distant.
I need not have worried. It is an honest thoughtful respectful work. No life so charged could be captured in under two hours, and some have written that they wanted more of X or of Y. But Louis is there for the discovery for those who want to go deeper.
I was in tears at the start, the middle, and the finish, with interludes for catching my breath and wiping my eyes.
If you know everything about Louis, this is a film not to be missed; if you know little or nothing, the same assertion holds true. If you are intrigued by film-making, by popular culture, it is also a revealing delight. It is the story of a jazz creator, a beloved entertainer, a Black man in a systematically hostile world, an American so relevant, and so much more. Louis stands tall and energized as an exceptional human being who sent love out like a clarion trumpet call to all who could hear.
May your happiness increase!