Black Joy (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Powerhouse Films
Review written by and copyright: Rick Curzon (5th June 2019).
The Film

Based on Jamal Ali’s acclaimed stage play Dark Days and Light Nights, Black Joy tells the story of a naïve Guyanese immigrant who learns the hard way about life on the streets of Brixton.

Presenting vivid characters, terrific action, and a superb soundtrack of soul, funk, dub and reggae, Anthony Simmons’ gritty film is an honest and insightful comic drama, exposing the lives of unemployed black Britons and immigrants in a ghettoised London.

Starring Norman Beaton (Desmond’s), Trevor Thomas (Inseminoid), Floella Benjamin (Play School), and a young Oscar James (EastEnders), Black Joy comes to Blu-ray for the very first time.

Video

Brixton 1977: Sweet, naive Ben (Trevor Thomas) seeks the good life in London, leaving his home in Guyana. After some rough experiences he meets good natured, amoral con-man Dave (Norman Beaton) who both exploits him and takes him under his wing. Ben also forms a romantic relationship with Saffra (Dawn Hope), the sister of Dave's girlfriend Miriam (Floella Benjamin).

Cracking slice of life drama with comic moments. A film I had never heard of before; it's beautifully written, acted and directed and doesn't always show it's characters in the best of light but manages to make us like and care for spiv Dave. Black Joy is both of it's time and ahead of it's time and surprisingly foul mouthed for a British film of the era ... at least in my experience.

It's also a great time capsule of '70s London with plenty of pleasure to be had seeing Brixton how it was only a few years before the riots. We also het to see vintage Margate when the foursome take off for a weekend break. Humour arrives naturally out of the situations and lingo rather than being an overt comedy the poster would have you believe.

Highly recommended and it deserves to be much more widely seen.

We have a very low budget urban slice of life drama shot by ace cinematographer Phil Méheux at the beginning of his career here. Prior to this he'd worked on sexy horror Expose (1975) and he would go to an illustrious career and form a long association with Black Joy's producer Martin Campbell shooting many of his films including both Bond epics directed by Campbell.

This is a richly coloured film with a warm palette filled with vivid reds, browns and colours from the warmer end of the spectrum. It has a very grainy, urban look that is also fairly naturalistic with deep, dark black levels and no signs of unintended crush; shadow detail is mostly excellent although night scenes can be dark.

The club sequences really pop with plenty of garish lighting on set and a visually vibrant tone suited the situations on screen. Streets scenes in daylight look sharp and lively although this is a low budget production shot on 35mm so don't expect digital clarity, softness is natural here.

Contrast is well handled with no signs of blown out highlights and facial and fabric details are very strong. Detail is splendid across the board on all focal planes with well lit closeups obviously taking first chair.

This isn't a glossy looking film; the intent of director Anthony Simmons seems to be to show the lives of everyday, working people as is and nothing is really done to gloss the image up. I suspect this had a fairly harried and brief production schedule and as such much of the grit of the streets seeps through it's pores and this is entirely appropriate. The look is very much in keeping with contemporary urban dramas such as Taxi Driver (1976) or Mean Streets (1973).

That said, this a visually more vibrant film than Jack Gold's - presumably - more expensive sci-fi thriller Who? (1974) released by Powerhouse Films recently in a fine special edition.

I can't recommend both Black Joy and this Blu-ray release more highly; image is spot on.

1080/24p / MPEG-4 AVC / 1.85:1 / 98:55

Audio

English LPCM 1.0
Subtitles: English HoH

A very strong and satisfying mono track with some decent low end that allows the crackerjack soundtrack to really hum. Don't worry though, dialogue takes centre stage and is always clear. However, the street lingo may have the viewer switching on the subtitles at times, especially with Norman Beaton's frequently jackrabbit, oscar-worthy performance. Happily, this subtitle track is especially well done and kudos to whoever created it because it could not have been an easy task.

The club scenes even managed to every so slightly engage my subwoofer! I noticed to signs of distortion of any kind and the high end is well resolved.

Extras

The BEHP (British Entertainment History Project) Interview with Anthony Simmons: An Excerpt from an Interview Conducted by Rodney Giesler on 25.9.1997 (Plays as an alternate audio track over the film (98:45)

Another essential screen talk from the little known Simmons who spent most of his career in television but made a handful of striking films as well as many, many episodes of various television series. The track starts with his early years, his Polish origins, his wartime career, his lack of confidence in his writing etc. He was a proponent of the Free Cinema Movement in the UK in the '50s; making short films that had low commercial expectations; one of those is on this disc, see below. His early career is covered in detail before Black Joy is discussed; the poor US promotion, the legal issues regarding the scoring, the success of the score etc. The sound quality varies with some tinny moments, but you can always hear what's being said.

"Good Stuff: Trevor Thomas on Black Joy" featurette (9:51)

Amiable leading man Thomas discusses his career and his joy at getting the plum lead role in this over an American star who was being touted for the role. Thomas has an easygoing manner.

"A People Story: Floella Benjamin on Black Joy" featurette (16:52)

A very confident lady; that's how I'll remember Benjamin from this fascinating piece. She discusses her attitude too fame, acting, working with Simmonds, nudity and how she was playing the long game with her career; hoping to make her mark without giving in to crass marketing like posing for Playboy.

"Blazing the Trail: Oscar James on Black Joy" featurette (7:46)

James plays a loan shark in Black Joy. This is another amiable piece that covers his stage career as well as the making of Black Joy.

"Dark Days and Light Nights: Writer Jamal Ali on Black Joy" featurette (35:27)

A meaty, chunky interview with screenwriter and playwright Ali who adapted his own 1975 play as Black Joy. Ali describes Dark Days and Light Nights as his fourth meaningful play. Lots of great details and trivia about the great man's career. A wide ranging discussion that even includes a Pierce Brosnan anecdote. Most amusing was the tail about how Ali met Norman Beaton in a betting shop. Beaton was very like the role he played and the other leads were all well cast to his pleasure. Apparently Beaton called out to Ali from beyond the grave when he visited his grave in Guyana. Ali likes the film although he has reservations although he's overjoyed at how popular it was.

"Guerrilla Operations: Martin Campbell on Black Joy" featurette (8:47)

Campbell discusses his career starting in television as a cameraman on through his low budget with the comedies The Sex Thief (1973) and Eskimo Nell (1975) and this leads to the story of Black Joy which he produced. A six week shoot on a budget of £150K.

"Slices of Life: Phil Méheux on Black Joy" featurette (13:41)

Like the other interview pieces this starts with Méheux's early career and how he arrived at working on Black Joy. The film was meant to be shot in a documentary cinéma vérité style with hand held 35mm with the odd tripod, 1000 foot magazines and only a few lights on 100 ASA film ... so a tricky, low budget affair. I was very interested to hear that focus was tricky due to the low light levels and heavy camera.

"Benjamin’s Brixton" featurette (2:58)

A short piece showing highlights of the locations with captions naming each one set to the Jimmy Helm's catchy theme song.

"Bow Bells" 1954 short (14:29)

One of Anthony Simmons earliest films a short shot in the east end of London set to old time musical hall songs that would've been popular in this milieu. Essentially a non narrative montage. Shot in the Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) and presented in HD. If I had to guess I'd say that Bow Bells was shot in 35mm but I could be wrong. In any case this looks good in 1080/24p with generally excellent contrast and grey scale. Black levels are good with satisfying shadow detail although there is some black crush, but this is a micro budget short that didn't have the resources of a feature. No signs of damage to the print used; it might even be from the OCN as grain is very fine. As usual, the encode by MacKenzie et al is top drawer.

Theatrical trailer (2:53)

Standard promo piece from the era plays up the comic elements.

Black Joy Image gallery: Original Promotional Material (16 images)

36-page liner notes booklet with a new essay by Josephine Dolan, Anthony Simmons and Norman Beaton on Black Joy, an overview of critical responses, Michael Brooke on Bow Bells, and film credits

And, if all of the above wasn't enough we get another crackerjack booklet. If you've got any of the limited edition Indicator releases from Powerhouse Films then you know the score. Worth the price of the disc by itself.

Overall

Easily one of THE releases of the year; a film I'd not heard of before but I was glad I got to see it ... dare I say overjoyed. A lost gem now polished and set in a lovely casing! Picture and sound are as good as can be given source elements and could only be improved by being given a 4K UHD BB release. Extras are extensive and comprehensive. An essential release for any one into cinema.

The Film: A Video: A+ Audio: A+ Extras: A+ Overall: A+

 


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