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Ladysmith Black Mambazo: On Tip Toe - documentary DVD / PBS DVD review
Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating: 4 1/2 stars
Featuring: Joseph Shabalala, Paul Simon, Patrick Bhutelezi
Director: Eric Simonson   Studio: New Video Group
DVD release: 24 August 2004   Runtime: 56 min. (1 disc)
Format: Closed-captioned, Color, DVD-Video, Full Screen, NTSC
DVD Features: Audio tracks (English - Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround), Closed Captioned, Academy Award-nominated version "On Tip Toe: Gentle Steps to Freedom," Director interview, Extended competition footage: Singers Uncut, Filmmaker biographies, Interactive menus

The Academy Award-nominated documentary, featuring the incredible singers Ladysmith Black Mambazo and called On Tip Toe, is so named to emphasize the leader's thoughts on music, dance and life. On Tip Toe shines a light on the personal experiences and public politics of the group from South Africa led by Joseph Shabalala. "It's not that I'm curious about other forms of music," says Paul Simon in regards to working with Joseph Shabalala. "It's about that pleasure in feeling myself connected. we're all connected."

Shabalala is joined by friends and family, making up a group of ten men who work together. The crooning and light stomping dances of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are heavily influenced by their Zulu roots and flavored lightly by some classic rock'n'roll, gospel, and early ragtime. The intuitive blend of harmonic voices is deceptive - much work and planning go into their art - but the goal is for each man to feel the music in their hearts and bodies. This music is primal and tranquil all at once. It makes the heart pound and the toes tap. There is no other music like it in the world, though there are other many other a capella groups. Even their fellow hometown groups hold Ladysmith Black Mambazo in the highest regard. They've become the first professional group of their kind.

It takes a few minutes to fully adjust to the heavily accented narrative monologues. As Shabalala openly shares his experiences, one might wish there were subtitles so as not to miss any of his thoughts. His speaking voice - and those of his group - are gently rumbling and melodic. He comes across as very honest and incredibly real; no cloying games here. He speaks about his musical methods, the trials he has overcome, and his views on politics, faith and family. It is so enjoyable to simply listen to them, even though there is a little regret in not being able to absorb their full meaning. There are also extensive interviews with Paul Simon as he reminisces about the first time he rehearsed with the group and subsequent experiences in building an album (Graceland) with them.

Their music is born of ugliness, of harsh working conditions, of disempowerment, of loneliness. Originally, out of the pain, this incredibly moving expression came about in various areas of Africa. Director Eric Simonson does offer brief beautiful but haunting shots of the various work camps and the women left at home while their husbands and fathers work hard and live primarily apart from the family.

One of the happiest moments of the movies is the brief footage of Shabalala's three grandsons dancing as children, after having seen them as adult members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The message they, as a group, hope to send out into the world is one of hope and love - from the beginning, it seems.

The documentary focuses not a lot on individual songs or albums but more on the group itself. On Tip Toe offers a thorough history of the groups' motivations, experiences and changes, before and after being discovered. With their personal roots and faiths to culture and politics, there is a deeply authentic quality that many documentaries are missing. From hometown competitions to sold-out concerts given around the globe to Lifesavers' commercials, Ladysmith Black Mambazo shares their musical joy and an inspiring message of peace: "The music is not just for the Zulu people, it is for everyone." This deceptively simple hour-long experience is inspirational.

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reviewed by Carolynn Evans
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