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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Biography > Music > Blues > Backstage Musical > Biopic > Racism > Lesbian > Music Industry > Cable T > Bessie (2015/HBO Blu-ray)/The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967/MGM/Warner Archive DVD)/The King's Singers: Madrigal History Tour (1984/ArtHaus)/Janacek: Taras Bulba/Dvorak: Wood Dove/Neuman (1986/ArtHaus)/L

Bessie (2015/HBO Blu-ray)/The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967/MGM/Warner Archive DVD)/The King's Singers: Madrigal History Tour (1984/ArtHaus)/Janacek: Taras Bulba/Dvorak: Wood Dove/Neuman (1986/ArtHaus)/La Belle Helene/Offenbach: Priessnitz (2014/Unitel Classica)/Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira/Crutchfield (2014/ArtHaus/Unitel Classica)/Von Webber's Missa Sancta No. 1: Freischutzmesse (1986/ArtHaus/Unitel Classica/all Naxos Blu-rays)

Picture: B/C+/C+/C/B-/B-/C Sound: B-/C/C/C+/B/B/C Extras: C/D/C-/C+/C/C+/C+ Main Programs: B-/C/B-/C+/B-/B-/C

PLEASE NOTE: The Fastest Guitar Alive DVD is now only available from Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive series and can be ordered from the link below.

This list has music-oriented narratives, followed by a set of recent Classical releases...

Dee Rees' Bessie (2015) is my favorite entry here with Queen Latifah doing an easy to under-appreciate job of playing the legendary Blues singer Bessie Smith in a project that took a while to get made, but it was worth it. Recreating its period past better than most theatrical films of late and using some flashbacks without overdoing it, this HBO cable telefilm is a biopic and somewhat of a backstage musical, but tends to be a bit richer and more well-realized than expected.

We see some ugly incidents that shaped Smith's life (sadly not unlike Billie Holiday; this film plays like an equally realistic flipside and conformation of the enduring Lady Sings The Blues (1972) with Diana Ross) as well as her devil may care attitude to live her life as she wished. She had talent early on, but a chance meeting with the highly successful Ma Rainey (an incredible turn by Monique) that becomes a personal breakthrough.

The cast is great, acting impressive and no less than Horton Foote (whose screenplay work included To Kill A Mockingbird and Arthur Penn's The Chase) wrote an early draft and much of that edge remains here. All this is additionally enhanced by its vivid portrayal of racism that gets ugly in some events shown here not talked enough about today, while another great angle is how dead on it is about the early years of the record industry. Rees handles all deftly and my only complaint is that this was not long enough, though I have my suspicions the script was likely longer than the final cut here.

The solid supporting cast includes Michael Kenneth Williams, Oliver Platt, Michael Greenburg, Mike Epps, Charles S. Dutton, Khandi Alexander and Tika Sumpter. Rachel Portman supplied the score. If only all TV movies could be this good!

Extras include Digital HD Ultraviolet Copy for PC, PC portable and iTunes capable devices, while the Blu-ray adds the Behind The Scenes featurette Bessie: A Creative Journey.

Roy Orbison was given the 'Elvis Musical' treatment by MGM in The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967), a horrible, lame comedy Western with bad drama, awful humor and stereotypical 'Hollywood Indians' to a fault. It is actually a disaster of a film except that Orbison keeps interrupting the horror with solid full-length song after song. Even monophonic, once he starts singing, its a while new ballgame. Maggie Pierce and Joan Freeman are the female interests and this was made a year after Orbison moved from his glory days at Monument Records to less success at MGM Records. His tenure there was not as fruitful and his career declined commercially, but not for lack of talent.

Only for Orbison is this mess worth a look, though it helps that this print looks better than expected.

There are no extras.

The King's Singers: Madrigal History Tour (1984) is actually a six-part TV mini-series (co-produced by the BBC) where the six harmonizing vocalists go preforming from country to country while we hear stories about music and their history. They sound like something between Gregorian Chant and a barbershop quartet, capable of a Capella and covering a variety of songs (even if some might not, to put it lightly) like their cover songs. Sort of a European answer to The Lettermen, give them the credit that they will fearlessly attempt to do any song ever made (their version of David Bowie's ''Life on Mars'' has to be heard to be believed).

This is well-done, even if you are not a fan of the actual music. They are a hit group and this is as good a way as any to get to know them without the hit or miss of a few songs.

Janacek: Taras Bulba/Dvorak: Wood Dove (1986) are a solid set of orchestral performances by Vaclav Neumann conducting the highly respected Czech Philharmonic. Fidelity gets in the way due to the age of both videotapings including the bonus Marches program, but I can see why this assemblage has the reputation it has, so it is worth your time if you are interested.

Jacques Offenbach's La Belle Helene (in a new 2014 performance) is a decent, contemporary twist on the most successful and popular work of the 19th Century composer with a solid cast belting out the opera throughout to good effect. Jennifer Larmore, Jun-Sang Han, Peter Galliard, Viktor Rud and Rebecca Jo Loeb top the energetic cast, but some of this was a bit uneven in its nearly 2-hour performance. Still, Conductor Gerrit Priessnitz gives his best along with them and is a decent way to experience the work for starters. The production has the money on the stage and is not minimalist or paired down like many contemporarizations of such works we have seen over the years.

Gioachino Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira (also a new 2014 show) has the same level of mostly-successful Helene Blu-ray, first performed in 1813, this opera takes place in a Syria long, long ago involving the goddess Isis! A royal couple taking on the title Emperor. Timely as ever, it brushes on myth and old thinking while its melodrama has more than its share of ups and downs. Michael Spyres, Jessica Pratt, Lena Belkina, Raffaella Lupinacci and Dimitri Pkhaladze are the lead singers.

Von Webber's Missa Sancta No. 1: Freischutzmesse (1986) has two works that are rarely heard or performed, with the main program over 25 years old, inspired by King Friedrich August the First in 1818! This was good musically, but was hard to enjoy because of fidelity issues, which extends to the second audio-only program of Haydn's Missa Sanctae Carciliae, conducted by the highly respected Rafael Kubelik from 1982, which might sound a tad better, but not by much. Sadly, fidelity again gets in the way, but these are historical and I would likely rate them higher if some serious restoration work could be done on them. If not, you'll have to tolerate the limits.

Extras in all five Naxos Blu-rays include booklets on the film including informative text in several languages, Helene and Missa has previews for other releases, while Palmira adds 14-minutes Behind The Scenes featurette and Taras has a Marches concert as long as both main performances combined.

All the Blu-rays here offer 1.78 X 1 aspect ratios, with the 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image on Bessie easily the visual champ so well shot with a consistently good look, good color range and a pleasant overall viewing experience with few flaws. The 1080i 1.78 X 1 digital High Definition image transfers on Helene and Palmera are second-best here being new HD shoots with good color, but more flaws, detail, issues and some motion blur. The remaining Blu-rays are actually upscaled old standard definition video in 1.33 X 1 centered in the 1.78 X 1 frame, which does not make them HD, but they look about as good as they ever will. Thus, the anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image on Guitar can more than compete for what it is from a decent MetroColor print, but the upscaling on Missa and Taras are actually more flawed and weak sadly as Guitar was shot on 35mm film.

As for sound, Bessie, Helene and Palmera offer DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mixes and the latter two have lesser PCM 2.0 Stereo sound. The latter two are the sonic champs, especially as Bessie has its silent and dialogue-driven moments, yet also has some sonically nice music presentations to offer. The remaining Blu-rays only have PCM 2.0 Stereo while the Guitar DVD has lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. Save the decent audio on the Taras Blu-ray's programs, the audio on the DVD and remaining Blu-rays is surprisingly weak, thin and compressed, so be careful of high volume playback and volume switching in those cases.

To order The Fastest Guitar Alive Warner Archive DVD, go to this link for it and many more great web-exclusive releases at:


- Nicholas Sheffo


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