The Real Louis Armstrong

‘Black and Blues,’ an extraordinarily intimate portrait of an American musical legend

Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues, now airing on Apple+. is an extraordinarily intimate, deeply affecting and revelatory documentary the most important figure in jazz history. In fact, its portrait of the artist is as interesting as the man himself: you don’t need to know who he is or even know much about jazz for the music, and the man, to mesmerize you.

That’s because director Sacha Jenkins has given us a behind-the-scenes look at the artist’s career. Without that kind of access, it’s unlikely the movie would have been anything more than a collection of facts that fans already knew going in. Jenkins wants to do more than educate; he dives into personal issues and confronts the crises and mysteries that circled Armstrong since he first started playing. While he broke through barriers that had previously prevented black artists from finding success, people also ridiculed him throughout his life for being too safe while other artists were taking a stand.

Wynton Marsalis, one of many commentators, admits he wanted nothing to do with Armstrong as a young man in New Orleans. He had seen enough to write him off as a clown, laughing along with white audiences who spat on him and made fun of the way he looked. But he eventually came to terms with how talented he was, and realized that his solos changed the way we play music forever.

About those solos: This is not a work of academia, and if you want someone to explain how Armstrong changed jazz, look elsewhere. The closest thing we get to analysis is someone telling us that he could hit higher notes than his peers, which is like someone telling us that Lebron James can hit more jump shots than his teammates. What’s special about this documentary is the access we get to his personal files, which he recorded over the course of his 50-year career.

We hear stories about his youth, as well as stories about his marriage with Lucille Armstrong. More than that, we hear stories about racial division in America, how Armstrong donated to the cause but was afraid to march because a riot could have ended his career. Somehow he kept on smiling, though, with a sense of humor that made people question whether he really cared about the cause.

Much like Armstrong’s music, Black & Blues is incredibly optimistic and deeply felt, though there are elements that feel cliche. The movie often relies on narration, which at first is sort of charming but then starts to feel rather dull. Still, you can’t help but be drawn into the artist’s life. His work with Ela Fitzgerald, especially, is just so cool, while his time with Orson Welles is enough to make you cry.

Editor Jason Pollard renders it all beautifully, riding the line between realism and visual excess. His use of magazine cut-outs, especially in concerts, interviews and talk shows, is expertly executed and utterly intoxicating. Structured in sections (like a magazine article) with pictures and interviews interspersed throughout, the film creates a true portrait of the artist’s psyche. If you love Armstrong, and want to learn more about the human being, you’ll enjoy this stroll down memory lane and discover that there was more to his life than just music.

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Asher Luberto

Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, The Progressive and The Village Voice.

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