God played a little joke on Louis Prima when He gave him a flat, broad face, a wedge of a nose, and the smile of a free-spirited prole. Throughout his career as an innovator of swing and a mythologizer of Vegas — a visionary of 20th-century energy — Prima, in performance, was a fiercely charismatic and sexy man, yet he was hardly knock-down handsome; at times, he suggested a Chico Marx with happy feet.
I raise the issue, in all its cosmetic triviality, only because one of the underlying themes of ”Louis Prima: The Wildest!”, a worshipful yet kickin’ documentary profile, is that if Prima had been blessed with more dazzling looks, he might have been driven to see himself as a true showbiz deity, like Frank or Elvis, and not just as a consummate ”entertainer.”
In clip after clip, Prima’s sheer physical joy on stage keeps bursting forth, like a laugh that can’t be contained. We see him as an ecstatic young jazz dandy, pointing his trumpet further up in the air than anyone else (a gesture that does for the horn what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar by playing it with his teeth). Several decades later, he’s a celebrated nightclub-lounge maestro, rowdy yet sweet, improvising camp-Italian bebop vocal duets with his wife and musical partner, Keely Smith, that zigzag from romance to comedy and back again. Doing his famous amalgam of ”Just a Gigolo” and ”I Ain’t Got Nobody” (yes, David Lee Roth took it from him, right down to the last bumbedee-bumbedee-bop), he turns the act of mocking his own heartache into pure jubilation.
Among the many people interviewed in ”Louis Prima: The Wildest!”, the veteran pop music writer Nick Tosches makes the most provocative observation, declaring that Prima was a key unacknowledged progenitor of rock & roll. Watching the film, you don’t doubt it for a moment. (In a sense, it’s been obvious ever since Brian Setzer’s ’90s-swing-revival cover of Prima’s ”Jump, Jive, an’ Wail.”) Then again, in the flashier, wilder era he foreshadowed, it wasn’t enough to lose control as splendidly as Louis Prima did. You had to look like Elvis, too.