Roger Ebert Raves about <em>Sita Sings the Blues</em> Roger Ebert Raves about <em>Sita Sings the Blues</em>
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Roger Ebert Raves about Sita Sings the Blues

Sita Sings the Blues

Roger Ebert has discovered Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and he’s written a lengthy piece raving about how wonderful it is. Among other things, he writes:

“I am enchanted. I am swept away. I am smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord.”


“One remarkable thing about “Sita Sings the Blues” is how versatile the animation is. Paley works entirely in 2-D with strict rules, so that characters remain within their own plane, which overlaps with others. This sounds like a limitation. Actually, it is the source of much amusement. Comedy often depends on the device of establishing unbreakable rules and then finding ways to cheat on them and surprise you. The laughs Paley gets here with 2-D would be the envy of an animator in 3-D. She discovers dimensions where none exist.”

I think it also says a lot about Ebert’s passion and love for cinema that he’s written such a long piece about a film that nobody can currently see and which has no shot at commercial distribution because of copyright issues. Ebert is not only writing about how much he likes it but has also arranged for it to screen at his personal film festival in April 2009 at the University of Illinois. We’re delighted at Cartoon Brew that Ebert is putting his weight behind the film since both Jerry Beck and myself feel that it’s an incredible accomplishment within the animation art form.

Read Roger Ebert’s article here.

UPDATE: Nina Paley has just posted her distribution plan.

  • Steve Gattuso

    I’m very happy to hear that Ebert is trying to help this movie, and hope that other critics will get together and push for it to get distribution.

  • Brian

    It’s pretty awesome to hear from Ebert. That said, the movie is still in trouble. Nina Paley has no way of distributing it, and is ready to give it away for free nearly. Yet she doesn’t want to do it on a low quality stream like youtube. If it begins being distributed as a torrent, which I don’t think she’s considered yet, it will be everywhere and she’ll lose control. Never reaping rewards for the film.

    I suppose Ebert showing it is great news, but it still has a lot of complications before it us readily accessible to viewers and profitable for Nina. Nobody’s winning right now.

  • Joel Brinkerhoff

    What are the copyright issues? Is it the music?

  • It certainly is nice to be on the radar, though.

  • Joel Brinkerhoff

    Alright, I maybe naive but it appears to me the copyright holders to the Annette Hanshaw songs are being very shortsighted. Here they have a wonderful way of bringing these old songs from the twenties to a new audience that have never heard them before. The soundtrack album from “Sita sings the Blues” would probably generate a lot of revenue alone.

  • Dave

    “the film uses songs recorded in the late 1920’s by singer Annette Hanshaw, and although the recordings are out of copyright, the sheet music itself is still restricted.”

    I love female jazz/pop singers from the ’20’s and 30’s like Annette Hanshaw, Helen Kane, Ruth Etting , and the Boswell Sisters, to name just a few, but for most people these performers and the songs they sang are totally obscure. (there is not big business being done with this material) If anything , the movie ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ could bring about new-found popularity to some of these old songs. In my opinion, the copyright holders actually stand to gain more from the increased popularity brought on by any widespread success that the film ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ enjoys. But of course, Sita has no chance of widespread commercial success if it can’t even be distributed because of the excessively high licensing fees that Paley must pay to use these relatively obscure songs. (it’s not as if Paley is asking to use the best known songs from The Beatles catalog or something) The copyright holders would apparently rather have these old songs locked up in a vault , not being listened to by anyone, rather than forego the licensing fees ? I don’t see why a deal couldn’t be worked out where if for some reason “Sita Sings the Blues” becomes hugely successful at the box-office that the song’s copyright holders get their piece of the pie then … but until the film can actually get out there to find an audience there is no pie to have a piece of . So the film should just sit in a vault like the old songs ? No one wins.

  • Dave

    Oh, and bravo to Roger Ebert for using his position to champion independent film making.

    And in the comments section on Ebert’s blog he does make the same observation about the short-sightedness of the copyright holders:

    “Ebert: Eighty years later. Don’t the copyright owners realize they are contributing to the destruction of their property by removing it from knowledge?”

  • Chuck R.

    I don’t always agree with him, but I greatly respect Roger Ebert as an ardent supporter of film and one of the few movie critics worth reading.

    What I like about him is he freely admits his personal biases in his reviews and writes as if it’s understood that film is subjective and that subjectivity is part of what makes film appealing and relevant. He also is brave enough to re-review a film, admitting that there might have been more to it than he was able to process the first time around. This puts him shoulders above the majority of critics who write reviews as if they were journalists —with obvious political bias, hoping their audiences will swallow them as gospel truth.

    I hope his glowing endorsement helps Sita win a wide audience (including a theatre near me), and I hope Nina Paley gets something for her efforts. Even artists who don’t create for the love of money, have to buy their next set of crayons with something, right?

  • Katella Gate

    Joel: Yes, the copyright problems do not center around the recorded performances by Annette Hanshaw (the recordings are in public domain now). The problem is the songs themselves are still under copyright protection and, of course, only large amounts of money will fix the situation.

    It isn’t in the copyright holder’s interests to try to assess large fees for these songs, since 1920’s tunes are about as commercially viable as barbershop quartets. Ebert actually comments on the situation, pointing out that:

    “Eighty years later, don’t the copyright owners realize they are contributing to the destruction of their property by removing it from knowledge?”

  • Brad

    “Joel: Yes, the copyright problems do not center around the recorded performances by Annette Hanshaw (the recordings are in public domain now). The problem is the songs themselves are still under copyright protection and, of course, only large amounts of money will fix the situation.”

    …You know, when much the same thing happened with WKRP, they replaced the songs in question with generic music. Not saying this is optimal, but couldn’t someone write a similar piece of music and replace the problem material?

  • Jason

    This probably pegs me as weird (fine, you knew that already), but I’ve always been a big fan of the band singers of the 20’s and 30’s, such as Wee Bonnie Baker and Anita O’Day. (My dad had a collection of records, and their funky sounds got to me – I guess because they sounded similar to the music in Disney’s Silly Symphonies). So this little film, featuring the voice of the heretofore-unknown-to-me Annette Hanshaw, really hit me in the vitals. I hope it gets a wide, well-deserved release…but in the meantime, there’s always Youtube. Thanks for the rec, guys!

  • VT

    anyone want to start a petition?

    atleast then they might consider making a business deal.

  • captain murphy

    Who has the publishing on those songs now? Is it necessary for clearance of the public domain mechanical rights, just becasue someone still has Sheet Music publishing rights?

    I will pay for a DVD of this film. Surely something reasonable can be worked out.

  • I’ll Say It

    I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since it’s been featured on Cartoon Brew. It’s unfortunate to see it’s release is restricted by copyright laws but that just goes to show how outdated and troublesome they are in this day and age. Hopefully, this serves as an example of how copyright law stifles creativity instead of promoting it.

  • I don’t think Roger Ebert did his homework. This music isn’t being removed from knowledge.

    A quick check on shows at least seven (I presume legally licensed) CD collections of Hanshaw’s work currently available, so the Brew commenter’s assertion that “The copyright holders would apparently rather have these old songs locked up in a vault , not being listened to by anyone…” is not credible.

    Amazon also shows some previous collections have sold out and now command higher than retail prices for “used” CDs which suggests the notion that “1920’s tunes are about as commercially viable as barbershop quartets” is a mistaken one. (Unless the writer is aware of the enthusiasm that barbershop music fans have for that genre).

    And where does the premise that the recordings themselves are PD come from? There are almost NO PD commercial audio recordings, from ANY time period:

    Basically, audio recordings of Hanshaw’s time were covered by state laws that gave them perpetual copyright protection. Federal law put an expiration date on them, but unless there’s some paperwork showing that Hanshaw’s record companies explicitly put those recordings into PD, they’re not PD today.

    Rather than being mindlessly unaware of the value of their Hanshaw recordings the owners do seem to very much understand their worth and do seem to be working to put them in front of the public in a way that gives full recognition to Annette Hanshaw and doesn’t merely make her a subset of some other artist’s work (as use in a film does).

    None-the-less, they ARE offering to license the music. It’s not like they are trying to suppress Nina Paley’s film by refusing to license anything. The offer they are making seems to be well in line with what music of other talented performers of that era would command.

    They may be overplaying their hand by asking for so much, but it’s their hand to play. Perhaps the buzz from Roger Ebert’s festival will nudge them to reconsider the promotional possibilities of Nina’s film.

    I hope that is what happens.

  • I can’t express how much I want to see this. And being on the wrong side of the Atlantic is going to make that even trickier.

  • Andrew

    The way Ebert screens most of the new releases that come out every week and NOT others is always questionable to me. In November, he reviewed every new film except for BOLT. It’s also surprising to me that Sita has been in existance for a few years now and only now, Ebert has seen it. Nonetheless, he is known as a big fan of animation in general, and him giving praise for an independent film will bring good luck.

  • Chuck R.

    I don’t think any of the publicity surrounding Sita is going to change the position of these copyright holders. Nina has spent 5 years cutting a diamond and grafting it onto an antique chain owned by someone else. Having the diamond publicly appraised by Sotheby’s, isn’t going to persuade them to give up the chain —unless all the publicity generated by Nina’s backstory entices these people to accept a royalty deal.

    The WKRP example is a good one. I think that show really lost something without the 70’s-era music. Despite what Nina says, I would hope for a talented musician to step up and offer to re-score the film. I’ve seen the clips on YouTube and I love the Hanshaw music, but I think a talented musician like Ben Charest (Triplettes of Belleville) could probably create a winning substitute. It might be a different film, but it would break the stalemate and put Nina in a bargaining position.

  • Yeah, I love that old music from the late 20’s. I made an animated film to an old Duke Ellington piece and I got permission from the Duke Ellington Orchestra to use it. But after I finished the film I learned that his son, Mercer claimed ownership. I couldn’t afford a legal battle so I got a friend to write and record different melody but using the same beats and accents; that can’t have been easy, but he did a great job.

    I saw Sita recently, and I echo the praise about the clever use of different styles of animation and dovetailing them together. I especially liked the true story of how Nina came to make the film, created in loose hand drawn animation. However, I do feel that too much of Hanshaw’s music was used. I believe there were 10 songs and they were all illustrated in a similar way, after a while I couldn’t tell one from another; everyone I spoke to felt that way.

    Nina, if you do get a distribution deal, you might consider paring a few songs, it could make the film even better.

  • Ebert’s review CAN help the film get released. There are few critics whose opinions matter more and have some clout with distributors as he.

    It is not uncommon for an art-house distributor (say Sony Classics, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, etc.) to pay anywhere from six figures to several million to pick up a film – especially one with perceived “buzz”. Nina needs “$15,000 to $26,000 per song” to clear the music (her estimation is $220,000 total). I personally believe this film has great commercial potential. If the studios are interested, clearing the music will not be a problem. Eberts “buzz” can get the ball rolling.

  • Mike Johnson

    I’ve got a good feeling about this…Ebert is certainly a power to be reckoned with, and I believe his push for this brilliant film will be strong enough to get it into theaters everywhere.

    $220,000 for the total rights for the music? No sweat…someone will surely come through. I’d be willing to donate a bit myself.

    And Nina…Noli nothis permittere te terere!

    This WILL happen!

  • a reader

    I really hope it can be worked out.
    But I’d caution people against maintaining that the copyright owners of the Hanshaw music-whoever they are, relatives, lawyers, anyone-are somehow less entitled to their fees than those who hold rights to more famous work: it shouldn’t and doesn’t make any difference. As obscure as the music is it’s very important to someone who owns it, just as all out work is to us. Ditto the cries of “but it would give them such great exposure“! Isn’t that the same as suggesting that an animator “donate” or reduce his salary so a worthy project some visionary conceives can be made for someone else’s ownership? Isn’t the argument that it’s all in a good cause/why not be smart/magnanimous always made on behalf of the person who needs the rights or compensation that belong to someone else? Easier to argue IF it’s not your property that’s being “donated” or licensed. Just something to keep in mind.
    I do wonder since this state of affairs is keeping a worthy project from being seen why this wasn’t anticipated or dealt with before animation was done. The best solution now might well be to rerecord the music. Janet Klein, for instance?

  • Mark

    Steve raises a worthwhile question that might come back to bite Nina and whatever distributor might want to pay for the rights: once that’s done, someone else may come out of the work trying to stake a claim on the music; some descendant of Hanshaw, a nephew of the music publisher, which ultimately holds copyright on a song as opposed to a recording, whatever.
    Just hope coo heads will prevail in this situation, and realize that however cool the cartoon may be, it will never pull Skrek-sized boxoffice, and adjust their expectations accordingly.

  • R.J. Laaksonen

    A Reader suggests rerecording the songs by Janet Klein, or somebody else, but that won’t do as it is not the Annette Hanshaw recordings but the songs themselves that still are protected by copyright laws. And although many people seem to think that these are obscure songs nobody knows or plays any more, a great many of the songs that Hanshaw recorded are among the great American popular songs of the 20th century, written by famous songwriters, and they are very carefully protected by current copyright holders. Besides, one of the main reasons for Nina Paley to make the film was having Annette Hanshaw to sing Sita’s songs. She could put out a soundtrack album featuring Hanshaw’s vocals. That is not illegal.

  • captain murphy

    What happens is, Public Domain recordings (cartoons as well, natch) are cleaned up, and Remastered and then THOSE are copyrighted as a new work.

    But as clearance goes, seems like 10,000 is a fairly standard starting point. Of course these standards are based on an assumed mass market, such as Movies or Television, rather than unit sales, and somewhat based on the notion of “Our Hits will give YOU a hit”

    Tons of classic television that could be reconsumed, simply isn’t because the live performance of a song was considered a gift at that time, covered by blnaket fees, but was not meant for reruns in perpetuem. Which is a shame. Because it is those instances that keep the old songs alive, the WB catalog through Looney Tunes.

    Radio shot itself in the foot, and the only outlet for discovery of new music is via Television commercials.

  • Chris L

    @a reader: Your appeal that one group of copyright holders is not worth less than another, more famous group, makes sense.

    However, these are songs that were recorded/written 80 years ago. This is an old argument around copyright law, but there’s little reason why anything that old should not be public domain. Copyright laws have been extended and extended again to protect old Mickey Mouse cartoons, but it’s not as if any of the original creators are still making a living off the royalties (which is, of course, the reason why copyright law was brought in, in the first place).

    Copyright law doesn’t exist so that someone’s grandniece, however pleasant she may be, can make a living off her dead relative’s legacy. It should exist even less for companies whose owners no longer have any no real connection to the creator’s estate. (Those examples don’t necessarily apply to the songs in Sita, I’m just using them for the sake of argument.)

  • Dave

    Good going Ebert! I hope it helps get more people to watch this fabulous movie. The copyright holders should be thankful for Nina for bringing the music back to the spotlight; not charge an arm and a leg!

  • Hats off to Mr. Ebert for throwing his muscle behind this little film!

  • Having seen the movie, I can tell you that it could not be rescored. The precise versions of the songs are ingrained in the way the story is told (think timing).

    And the movie is indeed all that. Although the film would appeal to multiple demographics, smart teen girls in particular would think it’s the coolest thing ever. Persepolis has made nearly $23 million worldwide so far, not even counting DVDs, so it’s not like animation with international themes isn’t marketable. Some distributor needs to get smart and cough up the cash.

  • I’m Glad this film is getting some attention. It’s always great to hear of an Artist expressing something that comes from deep within.

    I hope she can find a suitable distributor.

    It would be a Great win for all Animation Independents.

  • Go11

    I’ve seen this movie last night and while it has all the components needed to make it a terrific, one-of-a-kind production, the story makes no sense, or if it does, it’s poorly told. Persepolis has a (big) leg up on that one, not talking about the copyright issues…