For a time, the behind-the-scenes story of Nina Paley’s animated feature Sita Sings The Blues was drawing more attention than the story in the movie. Hand-crafted by Paley over the course of half-a-decade, the colorful, minimalist Sita became a festival favorite in 2008, but languished because Paley couldn’t afford to license the songs of ’20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw for a theatrical or DVD release. Paley bargained the fees down, paid them, and then earlier this year put Sita online for free, while selling Sita merchandise and asking for donations to pay down her debt. Now, with the backstage drama largely settled and demand for the movie high, Sita Sings The Blues is officially available on DVD, ready to be evaluated on its own merits, not just as a case study for a cause.
And those merits are substantial. Paley divides the film into four interwoven threads, rendered in four different styles. One thread—animated in rough “squigglevision”—tells the story of how Paley’s marriage fell apart when her husband moved to India, and how she coped with the loss by studying The Ramayana. Another thread—animated with painted figures in limited motion—tells one of the central stories from The Ramayana, about a headstrong woman named Sita who ventures into a dangerous jungle to be with her exiled husband Rama, then has to deal with him questioning her fidelity after his monkey army rescues her from a lusty demon. In another thread, Paley uses animated Indian shadow-puppets to comment on the Sita/Rama story from a confused modern perspective. And in the thread that created so many headaches for Paley, she depicts a curvy Sita in hypnotic multi-tiered motion, singing Hanshaw’s swinging songs of deep romantic longing.
Sita Sings The Blues is remarkably imaginative in its look and structure, though it’s hardly flawless. Paley relies a lot on looped movements and repetition to extend scenes, and her sense of humor tends toward the cute and corny. But the parallels between her own story and Sita’s are undeniably poignant, and Paley’s use of music is sublime. When the story of her marriage reaches the break-up stage, Paley introduces yet another animation style—sketchier, more kinetic—for a wailing Bollywood-style musical lament. And all the Hanshaw-scored segments, which initially seem too similar, have a cumulative power, as Hanshaw’s blue-tinged voice and resigned “that’s all”s connect her mood with Sita’s and Paley’s. More than just visually clever, Sita Sings The Blues is touching and personal, sweetly soured by the kind of universal love story that’s all too common. Men and women come together in passion, get comfortable with each other, and then concoct stupid reasons to separate. That’s all.
Key features: A bonus Paley short, a 30-minute PBS interview, and a Paley commentary track, all of which go into more detail about her creative process and her licensing woes.