Ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
Innovators is a home video release of a PBS concert special that aired earlier this year. It combines the music of composers Sam Cardon and Kurt Bestor with narration by Alfre Woodard and selected film clips in a truly multimedia presentation.
Facts of the Case
Innovators celebrates the lives of great (and not-so-great) people who have taught us something new about the world around us or about ourselves. Cardon and Bester have selected a cross section of people, from Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Professor Stephen Hawking to rainmaker C.M. Hatfield and Brazilian anti-slavery leader Black Pete, and have tried to create musical selections that capture the essence of their lives. Cardon and Bestor have also chosen to honor groups of people, including the ordinary people who knocked down the Berlin Wall, the children of Bosnia, and the "unsung heroes" of every generation.
I don't feel qualified to comment as a music critic, but I know what I like, and I enjoyed many of the musical selections in Innovators. For example, the first selection in the concert series is based on the life and works of Albert Schweitzer. It combines traditional African melodies, instruments, and voices with a Bach melody, a childrens choir, and orchestral accompaniment, set against a backdrop of African nature footage. This combination produces a unique sound that seems to be "multicultural" in the best sense of the word. Other selections are inspired by sources ranging from Brazilian dance music to Celtic harmonies to American jazz and bluegrass folk music to Barber's Adagio for Strings. Perhaps the most moving piece is "The Prayer of the Children," from a segment remembering the children of Bosnia, and indeed all children of wars all over the world.
All of this is woven together with narrative segments featuring Alfre Woodard (Mumford, Star Trek: First Contact, Crooklyn). Woodard strikes just the right note in her introductions, with nice use of humorous and dramatic elements.
Innovators is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This is to be expected, since this is a DVD presentation of a television program. The picture is very good, especially considering that this is a concert video. Since the original medium was videotape, there are no scratches or blemishes. It does suffer from some over-sharpening and edge enhancement at times, and at other times the image appears slightly soft. Colors are warm and vibrant but sometimes appear to be overly strong, and perhaps a bit too red. It is hard to tell if this is a problem with the transfer or if it is due to the multicolored stage lighting used in the concert segments. Overall the production team did an excellent job handling the varying lighting conditions in shooting a live event on stage, and it shows here.
The sound on this disc is in Dolby Digital 5.1, and is fantastic. The composers and their producer note on the commentary track that they are very excited with this new sound format, and that they have enjoyed experimenting with it. Sounds envelop the listener and fill the room. Distinct instruments and voices come from all sides, often moving from speaker to speaker and seeming to circle the listener.
A lot of effort has been put into this disc. The amount of extra content is mind-boggling, and takes advantage of the DVD format to an extent I had not seen before. In the section entitled "About the Innovators" the viewer can hear a short audio biography of each of the innovators followed by a text summary of their story. He or she can then choose to return to the menu, or watch the portion of the concert that deals with that particular innovator. The section entitled "About the Artists" was a big surprise for me; where I expected the normal text screens of biographical information, each composer and the producer gave a five minute interview explaining themselves and who they are, and what they wanted to accomplish with the Innovators project. There is a feature called "Live Cut" which allows the viewer to try their hand at directing the TV production of a concert video by switching back and forth among four different camera angles. For the especially musically-inclined there is a Music Score feature, which allows you to watch the actual sheet music scroll by while you watch a concert segment. Even the program's sponsors get excellent treatment, with short documentary featurettes available about them too! There is also a selection of three "bonus tracks," one of which is a musical piece by one of the composers. The other two are flamenco pieces that relate to one of the innovators showcased in the program.
On this as on any disc the most important extra feature is the commentary track, and this one is wonderful. It features Cardon, Bessor, and producer Brian Blosil. In my opinion the best film commentary tracks give a mix of personal insight and experience and technical detail, and give you a real feel for how the final product got to the screen and what kind of people put it there. The Innovators track does the same thing for the process of composing and performing this unique musical event. The three artists come across as down to earth, nice guys who use a lot of self-deprecating humor to communicate with the audience. They take their work very seriously, but they do not take themselves too seriously. It is fascinating to listen to them discuss such varied subjects as the influences on their music, the creative process, and the difficulties in shooting the whole thing for TV. I learned a lot more than I expected about all of these areas.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Again, I am hardly qualified to write as a music critic, but there were some pieces that I did not enjoy. The composers have a strong background in jazz, which is not my favorite type of music. Some of the jazz-themed pieces come across as New Age multicultural elevator music. I was particularly disappointed with the piece honoring Stephen Hawking. This piece was too glitzy and electronic to appeal to me very much. I concede that this is strictly a matter of personal taste.
One interesting feature that is included is a "Navbar" which can be turned on an off via the menu. The Navbar allows the viewer to skip directly from a musical segment to other related material, such as the audio and text biography of the innovator being profiled. Unfortunately it seems a bit hard to get the hang of, so I shut it off and navigated via the normal menus.
When this disc appeared on my doorstep, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The thought of setting to music the lives of famous "people who made a difference" struck me as more than a little loopy. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and found myself actually enjoying a lot of this presentation. It's still not one of my favorite DVD's, but it is noteworthy for its originality and excellent use of supplemental materials. I probably will not watch it again any time soon, but I was glad I got the chance. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but if it appeals to you it may be worth a rental, if you can find it.
Everyone involved is acquitted on all counts, and released with the thanks of the court.
We stand adjourned.
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