It happens every once in a while. I’m sitting at home and “Sita Sings the Blues” comes to mind. I think to myself “I’ll just watch a few minutes of it.” That never happens because I end up watching the whole thing. This is one of the most magical experiences that I’ve ever had watching a movie. “Sita Sings the Blues” one of my favorite movies – and I almost never use that phrase.
This is the best animated movie I’ve ever seen. The director, Nina Paley, uses every animation trick in her arsenal to tell the ancient Indian story of The Ramayana in a way that is accessible to anyone of any culture, using all styles of animation from 2D to watercolors to shadow puppets. Backing the story are contemporary jazz recordings from the 1920s that serve as a Greek chorus to Sita’s current state of mind.
The story is a mythology, but its themes are universal. It tells the story of the blue-skinned god Rama who is married to the beautiful Sita. She is devoted to him beyond all reason but he continually questions her virtue even after she is kidnapped and returned safely to him. Yet, the movie isn’t really his story, it enters into her emotional state and helps us understand what his distrust is doing to her. The movie’s greatest qualities come from the animation which blooms with each of her emotional states, all of which are represented by a musical number.
It is the songs that evoke the most magical moments of Sita Sings the Blues. Sita (pronounced “See-tah”), who looks like a Middle Eastern version of Betty Boop, sings Hanshaw’s songs with a sexy, laid-back style and always punctuates the numbers with a happy “That’s all” (which was Hanshaw’s trademark). All of the songs speak to the situation at hand, and every time Sita opens her mouth to sing, it brings a smile to our faces. Even when she’s sad, the film’s visuals still evoke a jolly tone. Paley allows the film’s visual palette to compliment what is happening to Sita during these musical interludes: When she sings “Am I Blue?” she literally turns blue. When she sings “Lover Come Back to Me”, it is accompanied by repeated scenes of her lover dropping her.
Director Nina Paley, for whom this was a very personal project, is generous with her visuals. She refuses confine herself within the traditional limits of animation and goes wild with her imagination. There are little moments throughout the film that are pure genius. Take for example, the opening scene which features the Hindu goddess Lashmi rising from the water and listening to a phonograph record – the needle of the machine is the beak of a large bird. When the record skips, the bird hardly seems to notice but Lashmi taps it and the whole screen explodes like The Big Bang.
I also liked a strange moment during the number “Here We Are” when Rama and Sita celebrate their love while Rama dispatches an army of blue demons and the song ends with the spurting blood from the carcasses creating a romantic arching fountain for the lovers. I love the film’s two-minute intermission – a sort-of Bollywood tribute – in which the characters cross the screen in front of a closed curtain and return with drinks and snacks from the concession stand (Ravana has ten drinks – one for each head). There is also a nice running joke in which every song ends with Hanshaw’s trademark phrase “That’s All” which, in the end, nicely compliments Sita’s final words.
The film contains at least two dozen moments like that. Sita Sings the Blues is such a visual experience that it is almost impossible to describe in words (I struggle now to write about it). It represents all the reasons that I love the movies. It is lively and fun, it tells a great story that is equal parts comedy, drama, romance, heartbreak, adventure, comeuppance, revenge, all mixed into a musical that is bouncy and fun. It tells a story that is universal in a way that we’ve never seen before, using various techniques and camera tricks to tickle us and treat us and allow us regard it with wonder. I love this movie a lot.