Review: Comprehensive and Insightful, Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues Only Has One Flaw: It’s Too Short
From director Sacha Jenkins (Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James) comes this honest and sweeping look at jazz trumpet icon Louis Armstrong, a founding father of jazz and one of the world’s first internationally known stars who was seen by man as everything from an Uncle Tom to a civil rights pioneer (depending on how you gauge such things). Taking full advantage of archival performance footage, interviews, never-before-heard home recordings and sometimes-salty taped personal conversations, the film pulls together the most complete portrait of the man I’ve ever seen. Even those interviewed who found him too much of a sellout in their early years grew to discover what an influential artist he truly was, as both an ambassador for jazz and the United States (his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was legendary).
As agreeable a personality as he was, his constant smiling and refusal to speak publicly about race relations made him a lightning rod for controversy during one of the most turbulent times in American history. Largely through his own words, Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues walks us through the early days of his career and rise to fame, explains how he appealed to both Black and white audiences, and attempts to make clear that what he didn’t express about civil rights in public, he made up for in donations and other means of private support.
Still, it’s the music that rises to the surface here, with endless amounts of footage from talk shows, television specials, and concerts, as well as his 20-plus feature film appearances (often playing himself or a version of himself). But for me, the real discoveries are hundreds of reels of self-recorded tapes that were meant to be Armstrong’s account of his life. These recordings feature Armstrong at his most honest, using words he’d never be allowed to use on TV and making it much clearer how he truly felt about the civil rights movement (hint: he was very much in favor of it).
Louis Armstrong seemed to know everyone, and those he didn’t definitely wanted to know him. For many, he was America and all of its creative and artistic worth. But there were still hotels he couldn’t stay in and venues he couldn’t play. Somehow he made the best of it and quite frequently forced places to change policy if they wanted Armstrong’s seal of approval. My only issues with the film have to do with its running time—it’s too short (1 hour, 46 minutes). This movie could have been twice as long and still not covered what it should have, but as is, it still manages to pack a punch and make its case for Armstrong being one of music’s greatest talents.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and streaming on Apple TV+.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.