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Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues review – careful and comprehensive study of a great artist

Though the pace can be a bit languorous, Sacha Jenkins's doc is packed with insight, intimate archive footage, and great music

A slow but soulful documentary, Sacha Jenkins’s Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues has a broad sweep, telling Louis Armstrong’s life story almost cradle to grave, while also folding in his immeasurable influence on 20th century music and culture as well as some of the more complex legacies he left behind. It’s a lot to cover, and there are stretches that feel more like an educational lecture than a proper film, but intimate archive footage and recordings and, of course, sublime music keep Black & Blues compelling.

Though there are plenty of voiceovers from Armstrong’s loved ones, collaborators, and those he later inspired (from Wynton Marsalis to Nas), Jenkins avoids ever cutting to an actual talking head. It’s a choice that keeps you in Armstrong’s world, immersed in the sights and sounds of his life, though it does sometimes lead to a pretty languorous pace, as newsreel after newsreel plays without interruption.

Though it is a whole life story, from Armstrong’s youth in the deeply racist segregationist South to his eventual worldwide superstardom and death, Black & Blues isn’t quite linear, taking on Armstrong’s life one topic, instead of one era, at a time. We’ll see the history of his musicianship and the way it revolutionised playing and singing for almost every genre to follow him before flashing back a couple of decades to start his journey again, this time through the lens of his political views and controversially withdrawn involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

It makes for a history lesson that can be a bit predictable or repetitive, but the level of insight offered each time does make sure that it is rather comprehensive. Combined with the use of Armstrong’s own tape-recorded conversations between himself and close friends, this systematic historical approach is both involving and instructive – Black & Blues is sure to deepen your appreciation of an already legendary artist.

Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues is released in UK cinemas and Apple TV+ on 28 October.

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