Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues review – swinging doc is a stirring tribute

Freewheeling across the trumpeter’s pathbreaking career, Sacha Jenkins’ immensely enjoyable study speeds through giddyingly rich source material

Luxuriating in a wealth of archival material that encompasses radio and TV interviews, privately recorded conversations from reel-to-reel tapes (Armstrong could swear like a sailor), and good old-fashioned newspaper clippings (remember them?), this documentary about the great Louis Armstrong is a real keeper. Fans of the legendary jazz trumpeter are likely to complain that a mere 104 minutes is not enough to cover such a complex, innovative character whose career spanned decades and hope there will someday be a supercut that goes on for hours. But in a way this swinging, 4/4, 135 beats per minute biography-cum-essay crams a lot into its running time and makes relative brevity its virtue. Like one of Armstrong’s great solos, it feels packed with dynamics, sprinkled with astonishing high notes, and immensely pleasurable.

As with so many docs these days, there are very few talking heads, and instead director Sacha Jenkins opts to layer the sound of unseen speakers over film clips and rostrum shots. One welcome exception is a wonderful sequence where the camera slowly tracks in on actor Ossie Davis as he recalls observing Armstrong when the musician thought no one was looking. The million watt smile was turned off, and he seemed like the saddest man in the world. There are revealing snippets of observation from maestros such as Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis, Leonard Bernstein and more, as well as bits of Armstrong’s writings read by the rapper Nas. Among all the deeper insights there is plenty of juicy gossip and weird trivia, covering everything from Armstrong’s well-spent youth playing music in brothels, his generosity towards fans (he gave away coal to the poor at some gigs), his taste for marijuana and devoted use of laxatives. Who knew?

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