GYPSY CARAVAN: WHEN THE ROAD BENDS - DVD review

Five gypsy bands traveled North America on a six-week tour playing to sold-out houses from New York to Austin to California.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

Five bands gather on the same stage: only one will leave alive!

Sorry, I just watched "Tzameti 13" and I got confused.

In 2001, five bands traveled North America on a six-week tour playing to sold-out houses from New York to Austin to California. The bands represent four different nations – Romania, Macedonia, Spain, and India – but all share a common cultural identity. They are Rom (short for Romani), better known in America as gypsies, a people in diaspora who most likely originated in Northern India before emigrating to Europe and other regions of the world in the late Middle Ages. Gypsies have been depicted in many cultures as thieves and murderers. As "Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends" reminds us, they were also targeted by the Nazis for extermination, perceived as another "inferior race" to the Aryans. The danger has hardly dissipated today, as evidenced by the recent strife in Kosovo where many gypsies were targeted as alleged collaborators with ethnic Albanians.

It might seem odd to begin a review of a concert tour documentary with a brief historical overview, but director Jasmine Dellal devotes quite a bit of screen time to visits to the bands' home countries where centuries of persecution weigh heavily on the people. But just as the multi-cultural gypsies share a history of discrimination, they also share a vibrant and varied musical tradition which ranges (in the film) from flamenco to brass-band to strings with plenty of dancing thrown in for good measure.

It is a simple observation that one's appreciation of a musical documentary is determined in large part by one's appreciation for the music. I must admit that I am not a big fan of the music in the movie with the exception of Taraf de Haïdouks' string band which flat out rocks. Even if you're a big fan of the music, however, you might be mildly disappointed by the doc's relatively scant coverage of the actual performances. Just when a big number really gets going, the movie cuts away to a conversation on the tour bus or footage from one of the bands' home countries. The film straddles both sides of the fence as a concert doc and an ethnographic film, a potentially rewarding approach that I found unsatisfying.

The general story arc of the film is one of five disparate groups gradually getting to know each other and function as one larger group in their show-stopping finale. Despite the film's broad focus on a large group of characters, Macedonian singer Esma Redžepova emerges as the film's central character. She always seems to be the center of attention, not just for the camera but also on the tour bus. She's a charismatic personality and a compelling story-teller, not to mention a powerful singer. In one of the film's most effective scenes, she returns home to perform a concert in Skopje for Romani refugees from Kosovo.

For my taste, the film runs quite long at 112 minutes but you likely won't feel the same way if you're more enthralled by the music than I am. There's only so much tour bus footage you can take before it all gets to feel repetitive. Still, the doc's global span provides material of interest even for viewers not sold on the music. It was also filmed in large part by cinema verité legend Albert Maysles, now a mere lad of 80. Alain de Halleux also served as cinematographer on the project.

Video

The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is mediocre with several scenes in which camera movements look very blurry, whether an artifact of the digital footage or the transfer I don't know. Colors are rich enough, but this could look a lot better.

Audio

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. English subtitles support the audio which is in many languages.

Extras

Most DVD extras are superfluous. Some are diverting. Some serve as valuable companion pieces to the film. A few actually fill in major holes in the film. In this case, the DVD contains several complete uncut performances by the musicians, a major boon to those who were frustrated by the numerous cutaways from the stage in the main documentary. The complete performances included: Esma Redžepova (3 min.), Taraf de Haïdouks, Antonio el Pipa and Juana la del Pipa (8 min.) and Maharaja (5 min.) There are also a dozen off-stage performances, usually little improves by musicians during their down times, ranging from 1 minute to 11 minutes (35 min. total running times.)

A short un-subtitled featurette, "Flamenco Church" (4 min) depicts a Mass service with musical accompaniment.

The DVD also includes an interview with Johnny Depp (11 min.) who appeared briefly in the documentary and acted in the gypsy-themed film "The Man Who Cried" (2000).

Film Value

Tragedy and joy share stage in this celebration of gypsy music and culture. Fans of the music may be mildly disappointed by the lack of major performances included in the film, but the DVD extras compensate for this. If gypsy music is your thing, this DVD (both the main doc and the extras) would make a fine addition to your library.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
7
Extras
7
Film Value
6