07.12. – Happy Birthday !!! Early in ”Louis Prima: The Wildest,” Don McGlynn’s buoyant documentary portrait of Las Vegas’s reigning 1950’s musical clown, there’s a television clip of Prima and his wife at the time, Keely Smith, goofing their way through ”That Old Black Magic.”
After delivering the song in rapid-fire call-and-response bursts, the pair suddenly skid into farce, bumping foreheads as Ms. Smith adopts a sour Southern twang and crosses her eyes, while Prima bends the lyric into a fat joke. ”You’re the blubber I have waited for/You’re the weight that fate had me created for.”
These irreverent high-velocity travesties in stage shows that had the spontaneity of wild parties made Prima a beloved figure among the Las Vegas cognoscenti in the mid-50’s. The onstage horseplay of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack and later of Sonny and Cher owed a great deal to Prima, whose image as a cut-up, roaring songs in a raw vocal rasp and blowing maniacal trumpet squeals against a frenzied beat established his public image as a raucous musical jokester.
But as the movie documents, Prima was much more than a symbol of Las Vegas in its early incarnation as a swinging boom town Babylon. At his best, he suggested a playful Italian-American answer to Louis Armstrong. His frantic jump-blues recordings also prefigured rock ‘n’ roll. His credentials as a proto-rocker were further certified when his famous pogo-beat version of ”Just a Gigolo” joined at the hip with ”I Ain’t Got Nobody” was recorded in the 1980’s by David Lee Roth.
The film, which opens today at Cinema Village, is generously studded with excerpts from variety show appearances featuring Prima, his band and Ms. Smith, the fourth of his five wives and his most famous singing partner. Ms. Smith, with her Prince Valiant haircut and poker-faced, faintly disapproving attitude toward her husband’s high jinks, was Prima’s ideal comic foil, and after the couple separated in the early 60’s, Prima’s career never recovered. He died in 1978.
”Louis Prima: The Wildest” arrives at a moment when Prima, Dean Martin and other old-time Las Vegas lounge lizards are being lionized as heroes of a renascent, martini-swilling culture that looks back at the bad old days of Las Vegas with the same rose-colored nostalgia with which others remember the Beach Boys as embodying the California dream. Also contributing to Prima’s resurgence have been his appearances on the movie soundtracks of ”Casino,” ”Swingers,” ”Big Night” and ”Analyze This.”
If the movie doesn’t delve deeply into Prima’s personal life beyond offering some family background and noting his five marriages and his reputation as a womanizer, it finds much to examine in his music. Of Sicilian descent, Prima was born in New Orleans, where he soaked up the sounds of local street bands and the Mardi Gras party spirit at the same time he was hearing Italian opera in his home. Once he took up the trumpet, he became one of the first swing band leaders to embrace the blues.
He was also a songwriter whose most famous composition, ”Sing, Sing, Sing,” became a Benny Goodman signature. Later, working with the honking saxophonist Sam Butera and his band, he made music that had strong undercurrents of rock ‘n’ roll. In the 40’s, he also began recording novelties with Italian slang and subject matter that helped inspire an ethnic Italian-American subgenre. The mingling of African-American and Italian influences in his music was so deep that on his recordings the blues shuffle beat and tarantella fused as one.
If all these musical and cultural crosscurrents are audible in the movie’s well-chosen excerpts, the documentary never begins to give us a sense of the man behind the music. All it really tells us is that Prima was a fun-loving guy and catnip to women and leaves it at that.