Lately I’ve been focusing on television dramas for this column, but as the first edition on The United States of Hoodoo showed, Hulu Plus has its share of films as well. These not only include their robust share of Criterion Collection films like Dribril Diop Mambety’s classic Touki Bouki or Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless) but a wide range of cinematic content.
Impressively, Hulu’s collection includes many critically and commercially noteworthy music documentaries. As the intersection of music and other imaginative art forms are a central theme of ours, below are some of the best that focus on Black talent.
directed by Terry Zwigoff
Crumb director Terry Zwigoff’s first film is a true treat: a documentary about the obscure country-blues musician and idiosyncratic visual artist Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, member of the last known black string band in America. As beguiling a raconteur as he is a performer, Louie makes for a wildly entertaining movie subject, and Zwigoff honors him with an unsentimental but endlessly affectionate tribute. Full of infectious music and comedy, Louie Bluie is a humane evocation of the kind of pop-cultural marginalia that Zwigoff would continue to excavate in the coming years. (text courtesy of The Criterion Collection)
Armstrong was an expert painter and designed album covers for his groups and other artists. He also made found object jewelry. And not only was he a blues and string band musician, having mastered 22 stringed instruments including the fiddle (starting at age 7), the mandolin, and guitar, but also played Italian, Polish, Mexican and country music songs for varying audiences. This renaissance man was an obvious influence to many, which shows in the ongoing Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival that takes place in Tennessee.
Watch the hilarious clip below from the film, perfect for giving you insight into the Louie Bluie’s character.
BEFORE THE MUSIC DIES
directed by Andrew Shapter
Inspired by the death of his brother, director Andrew Shapter and his crew go on a quest to understand why modern music feel so packaged and repetitive. Traveling thousands of miles through a vital music scene in the U.S. — artistically speaking — that is no longer nurtured and supported commercially, they visit dozens of cities, speak with hundreds of fans, journalists, record executives and musicians they are searching for “real” American music.
With outstanding performances and revealing interviews Before the Music Dies takes a critical look at the homogenization of popular music with commentary by some of the industry’s biggest talents like Questlove, Eric Clapton, Erykah Badu, Branford Marsalis, The Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and more. Also interviewed are cultural critics like comedian Nancy Giles and writer Toure. What they found were mega-talents without a major label, including one artist Eric Clapton believes is “the real thing.”
Using historic footage the film looks at the evolution of American music and the artists who created it and creatively exposes the sad truth behind today’s “artificial” music stars. “The reality is that superficiality is in,” says Marsalis. “And depth and quality is kind of out.”
directed by Ahmed El Maânouni
Recently restored by the Martin Scorcese led World Cinema Project, Trances focuses on the beloved and dynamic Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane. Storytellers through song, with connections to political theater, the band became an international sensation (Western music critics have often referred to them as “the Rolling Stones of North Africa”) thanks to their political lyrics and sublime, fully acoustic sound, which draws on the Moroccan trance music tradition. For Moroccan natives in the late seventies and 1980’s, the group expressed their need for rebellion and thirst for freedom and justice.
As director Ahmed El Maânouni states, “the group’s “Trances” are our equivalent of “soul music”, our irrationality. I followed the example of the Nass El Ghiwane themselves: I went back to the roots. They draw their music from the last thousand years of Moroccan and African history. The film sets out to reveal and emphasize this heritage. I chose the music of the Saharan brotherhood, The Gnawas, and the verses of the famous poet El Mejdoub, to underline the trances.”
Both a concert movie and a free-form audiovisual experiment, Maânouni’s Trances is ninety minutes of cinematic poetry.
Also of high note are director Les Blank’s short documentaries The Blues Accordin’ to Lightin’ Hopkins, which we covered briefly here last month as well as A Life Well Spent, his deeply moving tribute to the Texas songster Mance Lipscomb, considered by many to be the greatest guitarist of all time.
There are numerous other music documentaries to watch so feel free to let us know which ones are your favorites.
In our next edition, we will keep the Hulu movie theme going with some of their better Black-focused narrative films. Keep reading and watching!
- Michael Sragow’s Louie Bluie (Criterion) “Louie Bluie: Something Old, New, Borrowed and Bluie”
- Trances essay by Sally Shafto (Criterion) “Trances: Power to the People”
- IRockJazz.com’s Before The Music Dies film Andrew Shapter interview