Song Sung Blue

An Indian epic is re-imagined for the Jazz Age

Sita Sings the Blues, an innovative and marvelous animated feature by Nina Paley, snagged tons of buzz when it premiered last year. Word spread that it was a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination; maybe it even had a chance of toppling eventual winner Wall-E.

Then it hit a snag: Turns out that the movie's soundtrack — old jazz recordings by flapper-era singer Annette Hanshaw — violated copyright law. Hanshaw's records were in the public domain, so they weren't the problem. But the songs themselves — mostly standards — still held copyrights.

So, Sita was derailed from distribution (and Paley, who spent years and tons of money putting together the film, couldn't afford to pay for the songs) and, in turn, ineligible for an Oscar. Too bad, since it clearly would have been nominated.

Paley and the copyright holders eventually worked things out (she took out a loan to pay their reduced fee), and Sita is now making the art-house rounds. It's visually on par with Wall-E, incorporating assorted animated styles – line drawings, cutouts, collages, even retouched photographs — into the traditional story of the Ramayana, a 3,000-year-old Indian epic.

Looking like a Hindu Betty Boop (at least here; I'm guessing she wasn't so spunky back in the BC days), goddess Sita is banished into the wild by her proud husband. It's a tragic story filled with demons, infidelity and redemption. Paley works her own crumbling marriage into the tale, which is told by a trio of wisecracking figures who mess up details of the classic parable along the way.

But it's Hanshaw's songs, which pop up every 15 minutes or so, that guide the movie. They bridge the past and the present, the tragedy and the comedy. And there's no way the wonderful Sita Sings the Blues could exist without them.

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