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Docurama presents
Genghis Blues (1999)

"You know what I'd do to stay here one more week?"
- Paul Pena

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: December 21, 2001

Stars: Paul Pena, Kongar-ol Ondar
Other Stars: Lemon Degeorge, Ralph Leighton, Mario Casetta, Tony Decicco
Director: Roko Belic

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language and a brief scene of a goat slaughter)
Run Time: 01h:27m:33s
Release Date: December 05, 2000
UPC: 767685947234
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB+B+ B+

DVD Review

Roko and Adrian Belic's Genghis Blues documents the moving 1995 journey of blind American blues musician Paul Pena to the remote Asian country of Tuva, nestled in the barren land between Mongolia and Siberia. Pena, the man who penned Jet Airliner which became a hit for Steve Miller in the mid-1970s, has played with the likes of blues giants John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and BB King; but it was his discovery, quite by accident, of the unusual and mysterious Tuvan style of singing known as khoomei, or throat-singing, that drove him to onto a path of musical obsession that is so wonderfully captured here by the Belics.

Throat-singing is a very unique type of vocalizing; it sounds at first like not much more than a deep growl, and in Tuva it has been elevated to a nearly religious level. Almost unbelievably, it is the ability to produce multiple vocal tones at the same time (generally 3-5), and when Pena first heard the mesmerizing and eerie sounds eminating from a shortwave radio one night, he was completely hooked. Despite his blindness, he took it upon himself to become self-taught on not only throat-singing, but the difficult Tuvan language. Painstaking Braille translations of Tuvan into Russian, since there is no English equivalent of Tuvan, and then into English, turned Pena, over a period of twelve years, into a skilled throat-singer in his own right.

In 1993, a group of Tuvan throat-singers visited the United States on a concert tour, and it was there that Pena approached them after a show and sang a traditional Tuvan song. The Tuvans were impressed by Pena's seemingly natural ability to master their native art form, and they dubbed him "Chershemjer", which translates as "Earthquake." Pena was personally invited to attend triennial throat-singing contest to be held in Tuva in 1995. Accompanied by an eclectic traveling entourage, including a part-time tree trimmer/rock musician, an aging disc jockey, as well as the Belics, Pena finally made his emotional visit to Tuva.

Genghis Blues is not just about a blind American traveling to Tuva, it is about how music can bridge cultures, and in doing so, touch a number of lives dramatically. The Belics prove to be not only effective documentarians, but close to their subject, as well; their personal involvement with Pena is evident in the tone of the finished product. Pena's warm acceptance by the Tuvan people, something that he sadly lacked in his home country, is a dominant undercurrent in this film, and it is difficult to forget. At one point, during a particularly poignant moment on the trip, Pena writes and performs a song entitled Center Of Asia that powerfully hammers home his feelings, and it is simply beautiful.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: Much like the audio transfer, this disc is an amalgam of various video sources, yet the 1.33:1 full-frame transfer is very good. Colors are sometimes a little undersaturated on the some of Tuvan footage, but the interview segments have good detail and solid black levels.

Looks good.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Though this disc is presented in Dolby stereo, the source audio is generally hand-held mikes, and as such the quality varies a lot during Genghis Blues. I wasn't expecting a thunderous, enveloping mix by any means, and as a documentary, this track seems perfectly natural. Some minimal hiss at times, but overall the dialogue and music are presented as part of a clean and intelligible sound field.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Regret To Inform, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Roko Belic, Adrian Belic, Ralph Leighton, Lemon Degeorge
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Concert Footage
Extras Review: Docurama has provided a nice set of extras that compliment this documentary very well:

The full-length, scene-specific commentary features Roko Belic, Adrian Belic, Ralph Leighton and Lemon Degeorge. Recorded at Leighton's home in July 2000, this track is primarily Roko and Adrian, with the others chiming in almost off-mike at times. As might be expected, this track, like the accompanying Belic's interview, fills in some of the cracks with regard to some of the production struggles they encountered. The overall tone tends to be light, with a lot of jokes and humor, which sort of surprised me. For the Belics, this track reflects how the documentary became a very personal and rewarding project.

Filmmaker Interview (18m:47s)
In this segment Roko and Adrian Belic offer some insight into their backgrounds, and how Genghis Blues ultimately became a combination "documentary and adventure." I found this to be a fine follow-up piece to the film, as the Belics discuss not only their filmmaking roots, but the origins of this documentary and the struggles involved. A touching update on the life of Paul Pena since the documentary was made wraps up this interview nicely. Some of the audio does have an intermittent hiss, however.

Concert Footage
Over 15 minutes of additional live concert footage of Paul Pena and Kongar-ol Ondar performing 5 songs, with the option to play each track individually or with the 'Play All' option. Some of the footage is intercut with film clips, as well.
Song Titles:
Eki A'ttar (02m:49s)
Kalaak Hamar (04m:49s)
Konggurey (02m:40s)
Kargyraa Moan (04m:19s)
What You Talkin' Bout? (04m:01s)

Weblinks, bios, English subtitles, and 14 chapter stops round out the impressive supplementals from Docurama.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Genghis Blues is a very unusual story, but one with a very strong message. It is the kind of film that lets the simple power of language and music serve as a conduit between not only two distant lands, but two diametrically opposed cultures. The struggles of blind bluesman Paul Pena and his journey to the tiny country of Tuva is not only inspirational and touching, it's educational, to boot.



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