"God's greatest creation is music. The music of Raga is your
greatest joy, better than land, wisdom or being father of a
thousand sons. Music contains all of life."
Alternatively known as When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan, the DVD-titled Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends is a both documentary portrait of five Romani bands as they embark on a sell-out six week tour of North America and a hymn to the Rom people and their music. How familiar you are with what could loosely be termed gypsy music will depend on the breadth of your musical tastes or, as in my case, your exposure to the cinema of Tony Gatlif, a filmmaker enamoured with all aspects of the Romany lifestyle. But unless you really know your stuff then I'll wager that Gypsy Caravan has a couple of surprises in store for you. It certainly did for me.
Described early on by the US tour manager as "five bands, four countries, nine languages, thirty-five people on the road," the Gypsy Caravan in question is a collective name for five diverse but celebrated Romani musical acts, who have been brought together specifically for this tour. They are, in no particular order: Macedonian vocalist and songwriter Esma Redzepova; Maharaja, who hail from the Indian desert state of Rajasthan and specialise in exuberant local folk tunes and songs; Fanfare Ciocarlia, a twelve piece Romanian brass band who play a range of tunes at sometimes lightning speed; Taraf de Haidouks (which translates as "Band of Outlaws"), a Romanian string band who specialise in weddings and funerals and whose elderly patriarch Nicolai has a most unusual way with a fiddle; and Antonio El Pipa and his flamenco ensemble, who hail from Spain and whose performances have, like those of their esteemed colleagues on this tour, already met with international acclaim.
It's that last one that really caught me out. Maybe I've been living in an information shell, but I genuinely wasn't aware that flamenco was gypsy in origin, although it's been long enough since my first and only viewing of Gatlif's Latcho Drom (which also featured Taraf de Haidouks, amongst others) to have forgotten that Indian folk music could also be on the musical menu. All five groups turn in storming stage performances, but the star of the show is the matriarchal Esma, whose extraordinary voice has no doubt contributed to her modestly worn label of Queen of the Gypsies.
Comparisons made to Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club are valid, with performance material intercut with behind-the-tour moments and biographical asides that take us to the home towns and villages of selected members of each act. Poverty and prejudice prove common issues, the continuing misperception of gypsies as people to be sidelined and feared being neatly if depressingly captured by a comment left in the guest book at one of their tour stops (see the film to find out what), while enthusiastic talk of the money to be made from music springs not from greed, but their collective stories of earlier impoverishment. The most poignant of these has to be the Taraf musician Calíu's still painful memory of his four-year-old daughter, who died in boiling water and whose funeral he could not afford to pay for. Even now the groups' success marks them as exception to the hardship rule, with Taraf de Haidouks' concerts being the primary income of the village from which they hail.
Structurally a little ragged and lacking the sheer energy and density of musical performance of Fatih Akin's exhilarating Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul, Gypsy Caravan is still consistently enjoyable and often enlightening viewing. The backstage material is lively and fun and occasionally unexpected – it's hard not to smile when the all-Indian members of Maharaja order a curry and specify that it be "not too bland, not too hot" and then are startled that even the bread is spicy. Johnny Depp pops up to recall his experience sharing a trailer with Taraf de Haidouks on Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried (2000), young Harish of Maharaja performs the physically demanding knee dance in female costume – which caught me out when I realised that it was he I had seen on the publicity stills and mistaken for a bewitching Indian princess – and in the tradition of Direct Cinema documentary, there's on-screen interaction between cast and crew in the shape of the young sound operator who accompanied the American tour, himself of gypsy descent and keen to learn from the musicians about his own ethnic history. The Direct Cinema link is given serious credibility by the presence of octogenarian genre legend Albert Maysles (Salesman, Grey Gardens), one of ten camera operators employed for the film's location and concert footage.
Personally I would have liked a little more music, but would nonetheless be reluctant to lose any of the background material, which most effectively highlights the past and present plight of the gypsy people and the importance of music to their culture. Fate delivers the film an unexpected final twist that completely blindsided me and made the final performance in which all of the musicians share the stage all the more emotionally affecting. I was left wishing above all else that I had even a modicum of the musical talent on display here, and that I might be allowed, just for a short while, to sit and play in such fine company.
Gypsy Caravan was shot at least partly on film and so really should look better than it does on ICA's DVD. The framing is correct at 1.85:1, the print is clean, but the transfer is letterboxed rather than anamorphic, the contrast sometimes a bit harsh on the shadow detail and the colours a little over-saturated, resulting in some bleeding on bright reds and blues. The running time matches that of the cinema release, suggesting an NTSC to PAL transfer (the fixed subtitles are in American English and are also there for any English delivered in a strong accent). Detail is reasonable within these constraints, but the lack of definition is illustrated well during the end credits, which are sometimes hard to make out.
The sound is Dolby 2.0 stereo and just cries out to by 5.1. It's a reasonable mix but the music doesn't quite have the clarity and breadth of sound I'd have hoped for.
None, at least on the review disc.
A film that educates as it entertains and one that celebrates music and, by its own association, life itself. It calls for better DVD handling than it gets here, especially given the potential for supplementary material and ear-rocking sound. But see it nonetheless – it deserves to transcend these technical constraints.
Note: No screen grabs have been included in this review because of timecode on the review disc obscuring part of the picture.