Studio: Image Entertainment
Cast: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Owens, Bobby Hackett, Ray Nance
Director: George Wein, Sidney J. Steiner
Release Date: February 17, 2010, 8:35 am
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:32m:16s
"There ain't but two kinds of music, anyway: good and bad." - Louis Armstrong
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Grade: B
Happy birthday, Pops! Someone had the wisdom, in 1970, to celebrate Louis Armstrong and his musical legacy while he was still with us—though he's advanced in years, there's nothing funereal about this film, happily, even if it's a bit of a struggle to watch this volcano of musical vitality in the years of cooling embers. He may have fudged history some, but Armstrong adopted July 4, 1900 as his all-American birthday, and the Newport Jazz Festival decided to throw him a party—Armstrong had been a staple of the annual summer event for decades (as any fan of High Society can attest).
You get the sense that Armstrong knows what an icon he is, especially when the cameras are rolling; he's performed so much and for so long, and he knows what the commodity of Satchmo is, and he's happy to deliver the goods. (At times you can't help but wonder if he isn't laying on some of the minstrelsy a bit thick; but you can see why he might, because so many people gawk at him, as if he were a precious animal in a zoo.) He's clearly declining—he favors us here with many of his trademark growly vocals, but his musical reinvention really came with his horn in his hands, so it's somewhat sad to see him unable or unwilling to play the trumpet.
To make up for this, the lineup includes a roster of trumpet players deeply influenced by Armstrong's style, paying their respects to him on some of his signature numbers, like Them There Eyes. It's got to be intimidating, to play songs associated with Armstrong for him, but the merry cast here is up to the task—the concert also pays respects to Armstrong's New Orleans roots, with a delightful, extended set from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Dizzy Gillespie even pitches in with his best Pops impression on I'm Confessin'.
The first half of the film is rehearsal footage; the second, from the concert, and the songs are broken up with brief interviews with Armstrong, discussing his songs and his career. Another legend takes the stage as well: Mahalia Jackson is rightly revered, but I think you could argue that the gospel legend steals a little too much focus with her extended set, as spirited as it is. Armstrong joins her for Just A Closer Walk With Thee—certainly her song more than his—and all the collected talent join them for a double-barreled finale of When the Saints Go Marching In and Mack the Knife. And you don't even have to be a Saints fan to sing along.
Three brief featurettes supplement the concert film. Armstrong discusses his signature song, When It's Sleepy Time Down South (4m:29s), and gives an impromptu performance; he pays his respects to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who favor us with Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?(8m:13s); and producer George Wein reminisces about The Story Behind the Film (14m:24s).
Jon Danziger February 17, 2010, 8:35 am