Don’t Play Us Cheap
Melvin Van Peebles’s film version of his own Tony Award–nominated Broadway musical is a bold blend of theater and nervy, New Wave–inflected cinematic invention. A cast of Black stage and screen luminaries including Esther Rolle, Mabel King, and Avon Long stars in this charmingly offbeat, fablelike fantasy in which a pair of mischief-making devil-bats dispatched by Satan assume human form in order to wreak havoc on a Saturday-night house party in Harlem—only to find their diabolical plan thwarted by their hosts’ infectious generosity of spirit. Staged with ebullience, the original blues- and gospel-infused songs by Van Peebles burst forth in a life-affirming celebration of Black joy, tenderness, resilience, and strength.
The fourth dual-layer disc in Criterion’s latest box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films, presents the director’s Don’t Play Us Cheap (a film adaptation of his Broadway musical), delivered here in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration undertaken by Criterion and The Museum of Modern Art. The notes state the transfer comes from the 35mm original camera negative, though I suspect other elements may have also come into play.
Outside of the opening and a handful of other shots throughout the film, this presentation has turned out remarkably well. Detail is great a good majority of the time, the image razor sharp, allowing the elaborate details found in some of the costumes (particularly the imps’) jumping out clearly. Grain is clean and rendered nicely, noise rarely an issue. The image can go soft or fuzzy from time to time, but it’s always related to the elements: the opening looks to come from either a different type of film stock or source elements outside of the negative, and in other spots it’s either related to a similar issue or the camera being out-of-focus (before correcting itself). Past all of this the presentation still has a lovely film-like quality to it throughout, the digital encode looking solid.
The colours lean warmer, though I didn’t think it was excessive. Whites are decent with blues still making an appearance. Black levels also manage to hold up, allowing for a strong range of detail in the shadows. The print shows a handful of marks here and there, including tram lines, and again it looks a bit rougher during the opening, but the restoration work on the whole has cleaned things up remarkably and the end results are excellent.
The film comes with a DTS-HD MA 3.0 soundtrack, spreading the audio across the three front speakers. Most of the audio is directed towards the center channel, with some actions and dialogue spreading out to the other speakers here and there (at least noticeably). The left and right speakers are mostly active during the musical numbers, the music spreading out between all three channels.
General quality is good, the music sounding sharp with adequate range, but dialogue, while mostly clear, can get a little quiet or muffled in a few spots, which I think comes down to the original recording conditions and materials. Outside of these instances the audio is fine.
Much to my disappointment, this film ends up getting looked over when it comes to supplements, with only two of them to be found: a 2-minute introduction from 1997 featuring Van Peebles telling the personal story that inspired him to write the play, followed by the full 29-minute episode of Black Journal from 1972 featuring Van Peebles promoting the Broadway play alongside host Tony Brown. The latter is pretty good as the two talk about black representation on Broadway and the musical’s story and characters. It also has a few performances from the cast thrown in for good measure.
What I would have expected here is maybe some more material around the director’s stage work. This aspect of his career is touched throughout the other supplements in the set, but they only scrape the surface. It feels like it would have been a no-brainer to place material here that focused more on the productions of Don’t Play Us Cheap and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, along with his other writings. Sadly, it seems it was not deemed to be worth it.
Though the presentation is rather good the lack of any significant supplementary material leads to this title being the biggest disappointment in the set.