Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films
Director, writer, composer, actor, and one-man creative revolutionary Melvin Van Peebles jolted American independent cinema to new life with his explosive stylistic energy and unfiltered expression of Black consciousness. Though he undeniably altered the course of film history with the anarchic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, that pop-culture bombshell is just one piece of a remarkably varied career that has also encompassed forays into European art cinema (The Story of a Three Day Pass), mainstream Hollywood comedy (Watermelon Man), and Broadway musicals (Don’t Play Us Cheap). Each facet of Van Peebles’s renegade genius is on display in this collection of four films, a tribute to a transformative artist whose caustic social observation, radical formal innovation, and uncompromising vision established a new cinematic model for Black creative independence. Also included in the set is Baadasssss!, a chronicle of the production of Sweet Sweetback made by Van Peebles’s son Mario Van Peebles—and starring the younger Van Peebles as Melvin.
The Criterion Collection gathers four of director Melvin Van Peebles’ films for their latest director-centric box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films. The set brings together The Story of a Three Day Pass, Watermelon Man, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and the film adaptation of his stage play Don’t Play Us Cheap. The four films are all sourced from recent 4K restorations and are each presented on individual dual-layer discs with 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes. The Story of a Three Day Pass and Don’t Play Us Cheap are presented in the ratio of 1.66:1. The other two films are presented in the ratio of 1.85:1. A fifth dual-layer disc presents son Mario Van Peebles’ 2003 film Baadasssss!, a dramatization on the making of Sweetback. The film was shot in high-definition digital and is presented in the ratio of 1.78:1.
To my surprise every film in the set comes out looking great. Though it may not be the best looking due simply to the materials maybe being the worst shape, I was most impressed with how well Sweet Sweetback turned out, which makes use of the same master Vinegar Syndrome used for their own Blu-ray edition. An early nighttime sequence is a bit fuzzier and darker than the rest of the film, to the point where it’s hard to see (with the encode appearing to have a bit of an issue rendering it sometimes) but the rest of the film delivers incredible details and retains a sharp film texture throughout. Damage gets heavy at moments though most of the image is near-spotless a lot of the time. All things considered I was anticipating this title to look far worse than it actually does.
Watermelon Man is the sole studio production in the set and the restoration was handled by Sony (the rest were restored with the involvement of several entities, covered in each individual title’s review). The 4K restoration looks significantly better than Indicator’s UK release for the film from last year, which used an older master. Grain, details, and even black levels all look better in comparison, significantly so, yet the colours lean significantly warmer in this presentation, adding a greenish-yellow layer to the image. Indicator’s release could lean a little too much on the pink/magenta end. I'm sure there’s a happy medium in between the two extremes.
The other two films, Story and Cheap, show some of the expected wear, like a handful of marks and the occasional tram line, otherwise they're in spectacular condition. Cheap does look to have maybe used different film stocks so grain and overall consistency seem to vary, while Van Peebles looks to have employed a stocking filter in a couple of shots for Story, creating an odd effect with the film’s somewhat heavy grain. Outside of these jumps in quality both presentations are razor sharp (when in focus) and, as with the other two films, deliver a wonderful film-like texture.
Baadasssss! is presented as a bonus film but it also gets a decent presentation. Since it was filmed in high-definition digital the end results are limited a bit by technology of the time. Thankfully, the film still comes out looking good, significantly sharper than the 2004 DVD edition. Detail levels are very high, the image always sharp, outside of some of the visual effects added to “age” the look of some footage, and the colours are fairly vibrant. Black levels even come out looking good, though a few darker shots do show some noise and artifacts, which are more than likely baked in. The same can be said of some of the shimmering effects that pop up in some of the tighter details. Despite that, it all looks pretty good.
In all, everything here looks great, all of it coming out as a wonderful surprise.
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Don’t Play Us Cheap comes with a DTS-HD 3.0 soundtrack, utilizing the front three channels. Most dialogue is focused to the middle, but music and a few other sounds manage to spread out to the other two-channels, filling out the soundstage well enough. On occasions, some of the dialogue sounds to have been recorded a little lower.
Baadasssss! comes with a DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack and it makes decent use of the environment. Music and some background effects are mixed nicely through the surrounds, while most everything else moves nicely between the fronts. Dialogue is sharp and clear, and the track overall delivers wide range, even using the lower frequency effectively in places.
The other three films all come with lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks and they're all solid if not overly stunning. Story can have a bit of an edge at times, with a slight tinny sound, but it’s otherwise clean and clear. Sweetback’s audio seems to be limited a bit by the original recordings, some distortion seeming to sneak into some of the spoken dialogue, yet outside of that I was still pleased with it. Watermelon Man may be the best of the three monaural films, fidelity sounding best.
The set features some great material, though they don’t seem to be evenly dispensed between each title. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song ends up being the most stacked title in this set, throwing in a number of supplements over its two discs. It also features what are probably the three best features to be found in the set: Van Peebles’ original audio commentary that he recorded in 1997 for Criterion’s LaserDisc edition, followed by his son’s film Baadasssss! with the commentary father and son recorded for that film. The title also comes with a making of for Mario’s film, The Birth of Black Cinema and then some archival interviews with Melvin. These interviews include his short 22-minute piece The Real Deal, featuring the director talking about his work while hanging around in the streets of New York, and then a more expansive 44-minute discussion on the same topic between the director and his son, recorded for the Director’s Guild of America in 2004.
Criterion has also recorded a handful of new features, most of which appear on Sweetback. First is a new conversation between Elvis Mitchell and Mario Van Peebles, Mario sharing a number of stories about his dad. A Scholar’s Panel then features a remote discussion between Amy Abugo Ongiri, Gerald R. Butters Jr., and Novotny Lawrence, the three discussing the importance of Sweetback and the impact it had. Another new feature with producer Warrington Hudlin and music historian Nelson George can be found on the disc for The Story of a Three Day Pass, the two talking about Van Peebles’ body of work (though one should be wary of a couple of spoilers).
Criterion also manages to dig up a number of television programs featuring Van Peebles through the years, starting with a 1968 episode from the French program Pour le plaisir, found on the disc for The Story of a Three Day Pass. It's a profile on the young filmmaker, chronicling his work in Paris and even visiting him on-set during the filming of Story. Criterion also digs up a 1971 episode of Detroit Tubeworks featuring the director promoting Sweetback, along with three episodes from the program Black Journal, each of which focuses around (and are found on the respective discs for) The Story of a Three Day Pass, Sweet Sweetback, and Don’t Play Us Cheap. The episode around Sweetback is especially good as it addresses the criticisms that were being lobbed against the film from the black community, even getting interviews with a couple of those critics.
What ends up being a little disappointing about this set is the fact that, outside of Sweetback, the other films don’t really receive any new features specific to them. Story at least comes with three short films Van Peebles made before his first feature: Three Pickup Men for Herrick, Sunlight, and Les cinq cent balles. The first two, made in the States, are unsurprisingly rough but do show an incredible amount of skill, which is made more impressive when you learn later in the set’s supplements that Van Peebles was entirely self-taught. The third film, made in France, is the more polished of the three (it’s also the only one to have receives a nice-looking restoration). It makes sense the films are matched with his first feature, but a more scholarly feature addressing Story directly (and maybe the shorts) would have been welcome.
Don’t Play Us Cheap only comes with that intro and the Black Journal episode, Criterion missing the boat on offering more context and material around the director’s stage work. But at least that disc, like Story, has an archival television program related to the film; Watermelon Man inexplicably comes with nothing about the film outside of a short introduction. At the very least the disc does come with the 85-minute documentary about Van Peebles’ life and career, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), which journeys through his life and work, providing a wonderful introduction to the director. Sadly, thanks to its short running time, it can’t focus on any one topic too long, but I like that it ventured into his brief spell on Wall Street, and it even addresses his singing and music, with the consensus seeming to be "it is what it is."
Also, disappointingly, Sweetback is the only film in the set to come with a trailer. All four films do come with short introductions by the director, most recorded in 1997, Watermelon Man's recorded in 2004. For the latter, Criterion has licensed what Indicator put together for their UK edition, which was based on an audio recording produced by Sony for their DVD edition.
Criterion does include a booklet with this set, running 52-pages. Racquel J. Gates opens things up with a short essay on Van Peebles, which leads nicely into new essays for each film: Allyson Nadia Field on The Story of a Three Day Pass, Gates on Watermelon Man, Michael B. Gillespie on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Lisa B. Thompson on Don’t Play Us Cheap. They all add a solid academic angle, though I think I most appreciated Gates’ and Thompson’s film pieces as they fill in the gaps left on the discs for those films.
Despite my disappointment in how some of the films do get overlooked, I was still thrilled with the overall selection of material, which, taken all together, delve deeply into the director’s overall work.
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Though there are some gaps in the supplements, Criterion's box set is a wonderful tribute to “the Godfather of black cinema,” making it the perfect introduction to his work. Throw in some impressive presentations, along with Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss!, and the set becomes a must-have.