TIFF: If you find Ken Burns’ “Jazz” boring, this is the book for you.
Director Sacha Jenkins did the biggest thing he could do in “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”: He allowed Louis Armstrong to be violent.
Armstrong is one of those stories about people whose opinions are strong and polarized. He is probably the greatest artist of the 20th century, in the opinion of Robert Christgau or Wynton Marsalis. Or he was an Uncle Tom, someone who sold and pandered to white people, like Sammy Davis Jr. (and, for a time in his youth, Marsalis too) thought. And of course, there’s America’s Third Way, which moves the sides of someone like Armstrong until he becomes a cuddly teddy bear whose “What a Wonderful World” stands ready to go along with. with any trade.
Jenkins’ new documentation for Apple TV+ avoids those limitations. He was interested in Armstrong as a person, and this is a complete and nuanced picture – a picture of a person that is not easy to separate. He brings Armstrong to life through archive footage (Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas shows get a workout here), voiceovers he recorded himself, and Nas reading verses of his letters. There were no talking heads except for Armstrong himself and a few archivists, nothing recorded. In that sense, “Black & Blues” feels like Apple TV+’s big music documentary from last year, Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.”
And “Black & Blues” is sure to grow as beautiful as Haynes’ script. Jenkins puts some of the audio-only content on top of a collage-like device where old photos pop up in red and words from interviews jump out at you like a discarded Fitzgerald text. to the camera in Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby”. It’s a fun ending, and it makes you think for a moment that Armstrong is alive, well, and ready to “taste the air with pleasure” as Orson Welles put it in one of his best TV shows. beauty for a jazzman.
It was only fitting that Nas became the voice of “Pops” Armstrong. Rap artists have been accused of the same criticism as Armstrong himself: enjoying wealth they support a capitalist system that they do not use the levers of power. Armstrong has always been accused of “selling out” or buying into a hegemonic power that enriched him while diminishing other black Americans.
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What’s interesting to hear is that, in Pops’ own words, he fully understood that system and hated it. He told a story about how after Pearl Harbor a white sailor came up to him at a USO show where he was performing and wanted to shake his hand. “You know, I don’t like Negroes,” Armstrong said to the sailor. “The mother told me in front of my face. I said, ‘Yes, I appreciate your honesty.’ And he said, ‘I don’t like Negroes, but you’re the one I’m mad at.’ Two thirds of white people don’t like black, but there are some things that drive them crazy. Isn’t it beautiful?
Those words of an Uncle Tom cannot be ignored. Even more disturbing, in this era of “respect the flag” that is more important to the North than stopping the mass killings of black people at the hands of white police officers, Pops is known to perform his own version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” laced with slurs, such as “Hey, can you see, moms!…” I when a reporter in North Dakota put him on record criticizing Eisenhower in 1957 for not sending troops to encourage school integration. Arkansas, he told the president that if they sent troops in, “Take me with you, Dad,” he would go with them.
Jenkins presents all of this with a clarity that has never been found in a previous Armstrong-related document. Certainly not in Ken Burns’ “Jazz,” which focuses mostly on Marsalis flinging superlatives about Pops while avoiding some of the spikier aspects of his life that appeal to white feathers.
When it comes to evaluating Armstrong’s music, “Black & Blues” is a letdown. Perhaps none of his songs have been heard in their entirety here. He is quick in his craft. He briefly touches on the great power of his trumpet playing, then his revolutionary act of singing not only his scats but his various words as he speaks, including Bing’s croon Crosby, added more inflection and emotion to what would become America. how to sing pop songs. (No operatic trills or Rudy Vallée warbles.) Jenkins could have done more here. Marsalis, who became the gatekeeper of the jazz world like Harold Bloom in the literary book “Western Canon,” is the main one to discuss the genius of Armstrong. It’s unfortunate, because he’s saying the same things he said in Ken Burns’ “Jazz.”
“Black & Blues” may not be a movie that will prompt you to blast Armstrong’s albums on Spotify. It’s a shame, because her music deserves to be heard and appreciated before her ’60s megahits (“What a Wonderful World,” “Hello Dolly!”) if you love music. “West End Blues” deserves more than a brief shout-out here. And I’m waiting for his “Saint Louis Blues,” with his one-note repetition, to be seen as proto rock ‘n roll in 1929. But “Black & Blues” is a record to admire. you to Armstrong, the man. It is very difficult to reduce anything.
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released by Apple TV + on October 28.