"Sita Sings the Blues" (2008). Independently Produced and Released by Nina Paley.
Released on SD-DVD in 2009, under the FilmKaravan label. Also available as (legal) free streaming files from various sites, and on Public Television broadcasts. Currently also available on Amazon Prime Video, as what appears to be an HD/SDR transfer. See the write up for details.
Both the 2009 SD-DVD and the current Amazon Prime Video stream are presented in Color, 1 hour 22 minutes, with 1.78:1 Aspect Ratio. Audio on this one is Stereo -- on disc as DD 2.0 for the SD-DVD.
The SD-DVD includes a Commentary track featuring the film's creator, Nina Paley, with additional discussion of the arcane Copyright issues involved from her Copyright Attorney.
Extras on the SD-DVD include a Trailer, a 5 minute Flash-animated cartoon short (also by Nina Paley), and a 25 minute interview with a New York Public Television channel which became one of the first outlets for public performance of this piece. There is also DVD-ROM material on the SD-DVD.
(Neither the Commentary nor the Extras are offered by Amazon.)
In 2008, Nina Paley completed a 5 year project to create an animated presentation of the Ramayana -- the Sanskrit epic which forms such an important part of the cultural heritage of East Asia -- from Hindu traditions in India, through to Buddhist traditions in, for example, Thailand and throughout Indonesia.
As you can see from the SD-DVD box art, the tag line is "The Greatest Break-up Story Ever Told", and indeed the story of Sita is inescapably one of love and break-up. But Paley ALSO wove into this piece elements of the break-up of her own, personal relationship.
Another major element of this is some marvelous music, largely featuring the public domain recordings of a 1920s jazz singer named Annette Hanshaw.
And it was that last element which almost derailed the whole thing!
As Paley was to learn, although the actual, Hanshaw recordings WERE really in the public domain, OTHER rights related to them were still tied up by Copyright corporations -- based on various, individual STATE laws existing before uniform Federal law was created. In particular, the right to merge those recordings with imagery into a single product -- so called "synchronization rights" -- were still controlled through legal niceties having to do with the separate rights to the underlying music and lyrics for those songs Hanshaw was performing way back in the 20s.
Paley had no money to acquire the rights in the "normal" way -- fees would likely have run close to a quarter Million dollars. But with quite a bit of help, she finally managed to strike a deal which let her distribute the film in a "Not for Profit" fashion -- for a mere, $50K licensing fee.
That deal allowed her to produce just one run, of 5,000 SD-DVDs. In addition, free media file downloads of the film could be offered as "promotion" for those SD-DVDs.
This is all incredibly complicated stuff, explained in just enough detail in the Commentary track and Public TV channel Interview to show how painful it all was. The upshot is Paley continues not only as an independent film maker but now also as an activist for rationalizing Copyright laws, so old content like this really can be repurposed into new art.
In 2010, Netflix negotiated the rights to rent the SD-DVDs. They also wanted to put the film on streaming, but Paley, at the time, had set her mind against Digital Rights Management (DRM) controlled streaming as part of her Copyright activism. She offered to let them do normal, Netflix streaming (controlled) so long as she was allowed to include title cards telling folks where they could go to stream the film for free and without DRM control. Netflix refused.
Public Television stations WERE allowed to broadcast the film, DESPITE the Copyright strangeness, under a special exemption granted Public TV stations for artistic works.
In any event, one way or the other, by hook or by crook, by Public Television broadcasts, by free file streaming from digital locker sites, and by Netflix disc rentals, "Sita Sings the Blues" actually did get out there!
And the RESULT is absolutely, staggeringly, mind-blowingly wonderful!
It's yet another case where something is SO GOOD I couldn't believe I hadn't already pounced on it before!
The animation is rich, colorful, evocative, humorous and clear. The audience is lead through the story by 3 "narrators" who are represented on screen from time to time as traditional, Indian shadow puppets. Just to give you a small feel for how much thought went into this, the 3 narrators, who evidently are meant to be modern speakers, often DISAGREE as to the way the story really goes next -- as if their memories of the oral tradition are not quite clear. In fact, the different elements each of them comes up with ACCURATELY represent the differing "traditions" of the Ramayana -- as for example from different regions of India.
The animation draws substantial influence from traditional illustrations of the story. It is 2D, Flash animation -- intentionally flat. But that's not to say it is in any way simplistic or amateurish! This is first rate stuff, and works exceedingly well with the story.
The music Paley has chosen -- both Hanshaw's songs and some modern pieces made by friends -- fits amazingly well with the feel of the piece. There's a lightness and charm which contrasts with the inherent tragedy of the story. And there is humor here, as well, which really holds up, even on multiple viewings.
The independent, 2009, transfer to SD-DVD is equally impressive. PQ is top notch with great dynamic range and lush colors. The Stereo AQ is absolutely first rate as well. Even the old Hanshaw recordings come across as almost modern -- with just a few, brief signs of damage indicating their true age.
TECHNICAL NOTE: Some banding will be evident during dissolve transitions. These are without doubt due to the Flash animation tools Paley was using as opposed to any authoring defect in the transfer. (The same banding exists in the HD transfer on Amazon Prime Video.)
My only complaint is, this is just a Stereo track. According to the Commentary, the original audio was actually produced for Surround.
As an example, Paley has included an "Intermission" in the piece -- in the tradition of Bollywood musicals. During the Intermission, the music (and some on-screen animation of the characters going off to get snacks or go to the bathroom) is overlaid with audience chatter. The original sound design had this spread throughout the Surround field. You were SUPPOSED to believe people were conversing right behind you -- and saying some really weird stuff!
I've no idea why they limited the DVD to DD 2.0. Perhaps it was a result of the Copyright licensing. Perhaps they couldn't afford Dolby's fee for 5.1 vs 2.0. It is never explained. But it is really the ONLY weakness of this disc.
PLAYBACK NOTE: I recommend playing this piece using a Surround Sound Processing option in your AVR, such as Dolby PLIIx, to light up your Surround speakers. This will give you more of the intended experience.
As mentioned above, the Interview and the Commentary give a good introduction to the Copyright nightmare Paley had to navigate. The Commentary also does a really nice job explaining some of the finer points of the feature itself. Both are well worth a listen. But the real impact of this piece only comes from playing it through with its normal audio track.
To give you yet another piece of whimsey, one of the subtitles tracks on this disc presents the dialog in LOLcatz speak (Paley is a cat lover, and two of her serial cats appear in the animation). "I can haz Seetah?"
As part of my investigation into trying to figure out why I hadn't even HEARD of this film before, I found Roger Ebert's 2009 review of the film. And HIS reaction was just as surprised, shocked and delighted as mine:
I originally encountered "Sita Sings the Blues" on an SD-DVD rented from Netflix, back in 2012. I'm not sure whether they still have that disc in inventory. If you want to PURCHASE the SD-DVD for this, there are copies for sale in the used disc marketplace -- at a premium. Amazon is apparently also offering to burn fresh copies to DVD-R media, so-called "On Demand" discs, for an even STEEPER premium. I'm not certain whether these On Demand discs would also include the Commentary and Extras.
I don't believe there are any Blu-ray discs for this available anywhere in the world. And given the Copyright issues, I doubt there ever will be.
The newest news I have, however, is Amazon Prime Video is now offering this for streaming in what appears to be an HD/SDR transfer -- however, still with just Stereo audio, and no Extras. I just played through it (via Amazon Prime Video on Apple TV 4K), and it looks and sounds great!
However you manage to do it, FIND A WAY TO SEE THIS FLICK!