Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: THE MUSIC ROOM

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
July 17th, 2011

Kubrick. Spielberg. Renoir. Godard. Coppola. These are the names that people often come up with off the top of their heads when asked what directors have had the most impact on their lives, and they consider to be “the best,” whatever the hell that means.

However, there’s one name that, after seeing this shockingly beautiful film known as THE MUSIC ROOM, that this writer doesn’t think gets the love that he truly deserves. Known as one of the greatest Bengali filmmakers to ever walk this planet, Satyajit Ray, for some reason or another, is also one of the least known auteurs that that very planet has to offer. Well, at least until now.

Thankfully, The Criterion Collection has just released one of the director’s most beloved films (along with his iconic Apu Trilogy), entitled THE MUSIC ROOM. Featuring one of the most contagiously moving soundtracks within not only the entirety of the collection, but within the film world as a whole, THE MUSIC ROOM is as introspective as the music is meditative. It also happens to be one of Criterion’s greatest releases this year so far.

THE MUSIC ROOM has a relatively simple plot, at least when compared to the depth that Ray mines within that narrative. The film follows the story of Biswambhar Roy, an aging Zamindar who watches as his gorgeously Western-ized estate begins to crumble. However, with his music room still intact, Roy spends most of his time listening to live music from the finest dancers and musicians that money can buy. Then, one night, things change. After his wife and son die in a fishing accident, he locks himself away from the world. As the proverbial and physical lights begin to dim, we become privy to some of the most lush and, again, meditative visuals that the world of Indian filmmaking has to offer.

While many may cling on to Chhabi Biswas’ brilliant performance as our lead (as I have, more on that in a moment), filmmaker Satyajit Ray is the most impressive aspect of this stunning masterpiece. The writer/director/producer Ray, director of roughly 37 films, is at the top of his game here, his fourth feature.  THE MUSIC ROOM is a vibrantly life-affirming piece of filmmaking that is truly alive when he allows the various performances to have their time in the spotlight. The music here is absolutely contagious, and whether it be a beautiful dancer or a bearded crooner, Ray injects just the right amount of life to make good on the energy being given to him by these performers.

The script is also top-notch. A masters class in the art of crafting a thought-provoking character study, THE MUSIC ROOM is both a lively piece of performance art, as well as a moving look at a man coming to terms with modernity, while trying to hold onto customs that fill his past. Something each generation has to deal with, this film remains as emotionally devastating as it likely did the first moment it was released. The script is all show, and absolutely no tell, meaning that while this is a character study of great depth, exposition is never included within this script. Be it a great turn of phrase, a proclamation by our lead, or through Ray’s camera, everything is left up to the viewer to decipher, if one is paying attention, of course. A shot of a chandelier losing its light or of a candle blowing out hint at just the sense of emotional despair that this man is feeling, and that feeling bleeds right into the heart of the viewer.

Speaking of the man, Biswas is a revelation here. Playing Roy with such great truth and vitality, the performance is absolutely involving, and in its final moments, utterly moving. By just shooting a glance or using his ever present cane, Biswas uses every frame of this film to its utter best, allowing for the film to punch the audience with the most poignant of emotional depth. Words can’t do this performance justice, honestly. Tulsi Lahiri is great as Roy’s steward, but it’s truly the trio of Ustad Waheed Khan, Roshan Kumari and Begum Akhtar, the film’s trio of performers, that will be forever remembered by the viewer. Kumari is arguably the film’s most engaging performer, busting onto screen with an ethereal beauty that will be scorched onto the retinas of each and every person who lays eyes on her wonderful performance.

If there is one thing that The Criterion Collection does, it’s not only introduce the cinephile world to great pieces of film, but do so while injecting this great sense of depth and context to each film. THE MUSIC ROOM is no different. First off, the transfer is mind-blowing. With gorgeous black and white cinematography filling each frame, this film absolutely pops on screen both visually, and given the top-notch audio mix, audibly.

And then there are the supplements. First off, the best supplement has to be an interview with MONSOON WEDDING director Mira Nair. Nair and Ray had a correspondence late in the latter’s life, and you feel this great sense of love and admiration oozing from each of Nair’s words. The featurette is short, but it’s really well shot and Nair’s love for Ray’s work is contagious. It's paired well with an interview with Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, which is just as enlightening. Then an interview with Ray from a 1981 roundtable is great, as it’s nice to actually see the director behind the film. However, the champ here may be SATYAJIT RAY, a 1984 feature length documentary looking at the director’s life. It features amazing archival footage and gives a really great sense of depth to this release, the first of what this writer hopes to be many Ray films from Criterion. It gives a breathtaking look into the way this artists crafted his pieces, and serves as both supplement to this film and as fodder for cinephiles looking to learn how the best of the best did their work.

Overall, THE MUSIC ROOM is a must-own. There is no other real way to describe it. From the dense set of special features to the breathtaking film which they supplement, THE MUSIC ROOM is one of the best Criterion releases in recent memory. The film itself is an absolute masterpiece from one of the film world’s greatest unsung heroes, and the release itself is just as great. Any fan of film owes it to themselves to nab this release as soon as possible.

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