Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though some appealing elements arose, much of the image seemed problematic.
Unquestionably, the source dictated that this would happen. Shot on a very low budget with “guerilla” tactics, much of the photography felt virtually improvised, and niceties such as appropriate lighting for night shots didn’t occur.
As such, sharpness varied a lot. When the movie opted for well-lit, accurately-composed elements, it brought nice delineation.
However, given the “on the fly” impression found during much of the film, I found lots of fuzzy, indistinct shots. I couldn’t fault the transfer for these, though, as they stemmed from the source.
In a more complicated domain, quite a few print flaws materialized. I saw various examples of specks and marks through the film, along with scratches, lines and other blemishes.
Unlike the softness, these didn’t seem to be inevitable, and they created more than a few distractions. Though many scenes passed without defects, others came packed with them.
No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects occurred, and I saw no edge haloes. With tons of grain, I sure didn’t suspect any noise reduction.
Colors varied, with many of them reproduced in a runny, messy way. As with sharpness, occasional elements looked good, but the iffy photography left the hues as less than optimal.
Blacks tended to feel mushy and heavy, while shadows came across as thick and dense. Given the movie’s origins, its unattractive visuals didn’t shock me.
In the same vein, the movie’s PCM monaural soundtrack revealed the film’s age and origins. We got a lot of looped speech, and the lines rarely sounded especially natural. Though the dialogue remained intelligible, it usually seemed flat and dull, with some edginess as well.
Music seemed thin and tinny, while effects fell into the same range and also lacked range or impact. Nothing about the soundtrack’s issues surprised me, but it was still a mediocre mix at best.
As we head to extras, we open with an audio commentary from writer/director Melvin Van Peebles. Recorded in 1997, he offers a running, screen-specific look at the project’s origins, cast and crew, photography, editing and visual design, music, aspects of his life/career, shooting on a shoestring budget, dealing with Hollywood and the MPAA, and connected domains.
Like the film itself, Van Peebles’ commentary tends to go all over the place. Nonetheless, during the film’s first half, he manages to provide reasonably good insights.
Unfortunately, as the track progresses, Van Peebles digresses more into self-praise. This makes the discussion a bit tedious, so while we learn a decent amount about the production, parts of it get tiresome.
Also from 1997, we get an Introduction from Writer/Director Melvin Van Peebles. In this two-minute, 35-second chat, he discusses his goals for the film. It becomes a decent opening.
Recorded in 2021, we get a Conversation with Filmmaker Mario Van Peebles and Critic Elvis Mitchell. During this 23-minute, 24-second chat, they discuss the life/career of Melvin Van Peebles along with Melvin’s impact on/reflections of the Black community. These offer a good series of insights.
From 1971, a segment of Detroit Tubeworks spans 13 minutes, three seconds and provides a view of Melvin as he attempted to sell the movie. We don’t learn anything much that we don’t find elsewhere, but it’s fun to see Melvin at this point in his life.
Another piece circa 1971, Black Journal goes for 23 minutes, 37 seconds and involves Melvin Van Peebles along with journalists Clayton Riley, Francis Ward and A. Peter Bailey.
Though I thought this would offer a panel among these four, instead it brings separate comments edited together. Again it proves interesting to see Melvin in 1971, and I also appreciate the ability to hear other reactions to Song during the era of its release, especially since not all praise it.
In addition to the film’s trailer, Disc One ends with a 2021 Scholars Panel. It lasts 25 minutes, 34 seconds and features film scholars Gerald R. Butters Jr., Amy Abugo Ongiri and Novotny Lawrence.
They discuss aspects of the movie’s release, its historical significance and its legacy. While we hear some of this info elsewhere, the panel offers a good modern-day POV about the film.
On Disc Two, the main attraction comes from Baadasssss!, a 2003 feature about the production of Song. Directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles, it runs one hour, 49 minutes, one second.
Here we find a semi-fictionalized view of the creation of Song, with Mario as his dad Melvin. Mario can’t quite choose a tone, so it offers an awkward mix of comedy, documentary-style “fly on the wall” and melodrama.
Even with those inconsistencies, though, Baadasssss! offers a pretty entertaining take on the flick. Toss in a good cast and this turns into an erratic but likable view of the Song production.
We can watch Baadassss! with or without commentary from Mario and Melvin Van Peebles. They bring a running, screen-specific look at facts and liberties, aspects of the Sweetback production, cast and performances, locations and sets, music, and related areas.
The best parts of the commentary focus on the interpersonal relationship between father and son, though those also create some of the track’s more disappointing moments, mainly because they don’t dig as deep as desired. Baadasssss! makes Melvin look like a fairly lousy father, so reflections on the Melvin/Mario relationship would seem valuable.
And we do find some of these, but they don’t appear frequently, and they don’t present much depth. The commentary does manage some insights, but it stays too superficial to really work.
The Story of Baadasssss! fills 21 minutes, 51 seconds with notes from Mario Van Peebles, Bill Cosby, filmmakers John Singleton, Bill Cannon and Michael Mann, documentarian Sandra Ruch, Song cameraman Jose Garcia, musician Maurice White, Song assistant Priscilla Watts, composer Tyler Bates, cinematographer Robert Primes, production designer Alan Muraoka, and actors Ossie Davis, Terry Crews, Bert Scales, Rainn Wilson, Joy Bryant, Paul Rodriguez, Penny Bae Bridges, Mandela Van Peebles, and Khleo Thomas.
“Story” covers the social context of Song’s era and the status of Black cinema at the time, aspects of Song’s production, release and legacy, and the creation of Baadassss! as well.
Inevitably, we hear a fair amount of this material elsewhere. Still, “Story” brings a pretty decent overview.
From 2002, The Real Deal gives us a 21-minute, 55-second interview with Melvin Van Peebles. Shot as Melvin wanders around Paris, he discusses aspects of his life and career.
Given all the programs already seen, we find more than a little repetition from elsewhere. Add the feature’s self-consciously “artsy”/pretentious presentation and this becomes a bit of a chore to watch.
Lastly, we find a Visual History with Melvin Van Peebles. This gives us a 44-minute, 27-second interview from 2004 in which Melvin and Mario talk about Melvin’s career. Melvin goes into filmmaking philosophies in a fairly enjoyable manner.
The package concludes with a booklet that mixes art, photos, credits and essays from film scholars Racquel J. Gates, Allyson Nadia Field, Michael B. Gillespie and Lisa B. Thompson. It adds value to the set.
50 years after its release, I can recognize Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song as an important part of cinema history. Unfortunately, as a film, it seems practically unwatchable and more likely to induce headaches than entertainment. The Blu-ray comes with inconsistent picture and audio as well as a long roster of bonus materials. Given its significance, I’m glad I saw Song, but I can’t imagine I’d ever want to watch this mess again.
Note that this Blu-ray from Song comes as part of a four-movie “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” set. It also features 1967’s The Story of a Three Day Pass, 1970’s Watermelon Man and 1972’s Don’t Play Us Cheap.