Although it's short, Judge Joel Pearce appreciates this look at one of South Africa's most successful musical groups.
"…I love to communicate with them, but the sound—the accent—is mine. It's not only for the Zulu people, it's not only for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it's for everyone, because it's just uplifting." -Joseph Shabalala
The director's cut of this Academy Award-nominated documentary is an entertaining and interesting look at this famous South African singing group. Although they have now become famous worldwide because of their connection to Paul Simon, they were around long before that, blending African and Western styles in order to create something completely unique.
There's no question that fame seems to have a serious (and often negative) impact on people. Lead singer/songwriter Joseph Shabalala and the other members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo seem to be completely unaffected by their growing fame. They began performing at weekly singing competitions, which have been running in their hometown in South Africa for about a century. Eventually, they were no longer able to compete at these competitions, since they were winning every single week. They kept singing there, but not as part of the competition. They became exposed to a wider audience when Paul Simon heard them and asked them to join in on his famous Graceland album, which was released during a boycott dealing with the Apartheid. Suddenly, they found themselves with a large international white audience, which gave them the opportunity to spread their message to the rest of the world. When you hear them talk, though, they seem completely unaffected by this sudden rise to international stardom. They still return and sing in their hometown, shrugging off statements about their obvious and incredible talent.
That incredible creativity and talent is definitely showcased here as well. Joseph Shabalala's composing process seems to involve dreaming up several songs during the night, bringing them to the band in the morning and teaching it to them without ever writing anything down. The music itself is an interesting blend of traditional African singing (rooted in traditional Zulu vocal music) with rock and roll, American hymns, and smattering of a number of other musical styles. Since the film runs a very lean 56 minutes, even with the additional footage in this cut, I would have liked to see some more of the music inserted. The interviews are remarkable, though, letting us see into the lives of the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo: On Tiptoe manages to be political without being abrasive, just like the music of the band. One of the band members was shot and killed in a racially motivated attack during the 1990s, the band was threatened when they agreed to tour with Paul Simon (a white American), and there have been several attempts on their lives during concerts throughout their career. Despite this, they sing songs of hope, which have probably had more positive impact than many of the activists against Apartheid and racial hatred in South Africa. With this background, it would be impossible for their music to avoid being political, but I love the statements they have chosen to give the world. They continue to sing, realizing that it could put them in danger, but caring more about the music and the preservation of the African culture than they do about their own lives.
The video transfer is a bit disappointing, as it is not anamorphically enhanced. The footage varies quite a bit in quality. Some moments are detailed and accurate, and others have clearly been caught by a camcorder in bad filming conditions. As this is a documentary, some variety in quality is to be expected, and the quality of the cinematography makes up for any visual weakness. The sound is more impressive, with a beefy original stereo track as well as a new and somewhat richer 5.1 track. This surround track feels too active during interview footage, but it makes the music sections sound great. Unfortunately, as with so many of its DVDs, Docurama hasn't included any subtitle tracks on the disc.
The disc is reasonably well stocked with extras as well. The original cut of the film is included, which runs about 40 minutes and still has the option of a stereo or surround track. It's nice to see this cut of the film included. There is also an interview with director Eric Simonson. It details his own relationship with the band, and the process of creating the film and discovering the singing competitions which he was fortunate enough to film. There is also some raw footage of these groups singing, which is a really interesting opportunity in itself.
Even though it's quite short and doesn't have nearly enough uninterrupted concert footage of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in action, this is one of the most interesting music documentaries that I have ever seen. It's a beautiful, whirlwind snapshot of a truly unique and wonderful music group, and is sure to appeal to fans of the group as well as anyone interested in African music.
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