A neglected figure despite the recent vogues for retro swing and lounge sounds, trumpeter, vocalist, singer and composer Louis Prima gets overdue appreciation in this latest effort by veteran documentarian Don McGlynn, who’s previously helmed pics on Art Pepper, Harold Arlen, Charles Mingus and other U.S. music greats. The delightful “Louis Prima: The Wildest!” should spur a revival of interest in its subject during current rep-house gigs and eventual broadcast airings.
A fine, innovative, instinctive musician, Prima has lately gone underappreciated for precisely the qualities that kept him a star over four decades. The wildly extroverted, determinedly silly hepcat tenor of his crazed performances made him an instant audience favorite, yet also suggested that he was something less than a “serious” jazz virtuoso.
That assumption is debunked here, but there’s no denying that Prima’s unique, infectious “all-around-entertainer” flash and humor remain his most lovable characteristics. Raised in the party-hearty melting pot of New Orleans’ French Quarter, he absorbed that milieu’s rich musical cultures early on, adding novelty songs from his Italian-American heritage to an act that otherwise adapted to several eras’ shifting popular tastes. In the 1930s, he conquered New York and Hollywood with jazzy dance ensembles. The ’40s found him joining the big band craze (he wrote one of its staple compositions, “Sing! Sing! Sing!”), while during the ’50s, he renewed his hipness cachet with a slimmed-down lineup that flirted with rock ‘n’ roll while pioneering Vegas showmanship — with Sinatra’s Rat Pack among his new fans.
In the ’60s, he hopped on the twist bandwagon (starring in a campy B pic, “Twist All Night”) and made a memorable voice appearance as a swinging ape in Disney’s “The Jungle Book.” It took a brain tumor — and subsequent three-year semi-coma, ending with Prima’s death in 1978 — to finally bring his career to an end, driven as he was by an insatiable love of performing.
Authorized by the Prima estate, “The Wildest!” goes light on dishing autobiographical dirt, despite passing mentions of his considerable appetite for both drink and women. (Jean Harlow and Martha Raye were among reported amours.) Among five wives, only the two interviewed here are mentioned.
But such omissions are easily forgiven amid the wealth of excerpted film, TV and preserved club performances. The most delicious are those featuring 1950s Prima protegee and spouse Keely Smith, whose sumptuous vocals and deadpan beat-chick demeanor made her an ideal foil for his anarchic energy. She’s interviewed at length here, along with subsequent performing partner and wife Gia Maione, drummer Jimmy Vincent and saxophonist Sam Butera. Curiously, pic includes no archival interview footage of Prima himself.
Unhurried pacing leaves many full-length song segs intact, to highly enjoyable effect. Tech aspects are solid in vid-shot feature.