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BAM 150: A History of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Cinema Guild // Unrated // November 12, 2013
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted December 18, 2013 | E-mail the Author

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM for short) turned 150 years old in 2011, though its status as a American landmark was cemented decades ago. It's home to progressive and avant-garde performances, at once an organization focused on international art and community-level events. Its first location burned to the ground in 1903, and the current "headquarters" at 30 Lafayette Avenue has been in business for over a century. Featured performances, attendees and/or guest speakers have included Mary Todd Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, Mark Twain, Paul Robeson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Peter Brook, Philip Glass, Alice in Chains, and Paul Simon, among many others. Today, it remains a popular international venue and local landmark, which includes seven performance facilities in three separate buildings.

Michael Sladek's BAM 150 (2012) pays tribute to the institution during this 86-minute documentary, serving up a condensed history of the Academy while offering a behind-the-scenes look at recent productions. Pieced together in a non-linear fashion, the history lession is smartly divided into four segments (1858-1903, 1904-66, 1967-81 and 1982-99), while a handful of recent productions provide a break in the action. The narrated trips through time also stand in stark contrast to these verite-style rehearsal and live performance clips, as we're given more of a leisurely pass than a guided tour. It's a formula that works well more often than it doesn't, even though anyone unfamiliar with the specific productions might feel left out in the cold. Sladek maintains a good eye for detail and has no trouble keeping the film moving at a steady pace; in lesser hands, viewers might be checking their watch iPad before the 30-minute mark.

Though material like this almost begs for a more episodic approach, BAM 150 gets by well enough as a stand-alone documentary. Featured interviewees like the late Peter Brook, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Laurie Anderson, Alan Rickman, Isabella Rossellini and Robert Wilson offer very brief testimonials, even though their more recognizable names are featured front and center on the cover artwork. Fortunately, many of them are given more speaking time as part of the DVD's bonus features, which also include director's audio commentary, deleted scenes and more. All things considered, BAM 150 is a pretty solid package that documentary fans should enjoy...even those less familiar with the subject.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Visually, BAM 150 is pretty much on par with like-minded modern documentaries, for better or worse. The 1.78:1 aspect ratio is fine for the newer footage but older clips suffer for it, as their lesser quality is made even worse by the edges being cropped. Colors are hit-and-miss at times and image detail is also inconsistent. There's a multitude of less-than-impressive source material on display including consumer-grade videotape, unrestored film clips and recent digital video that's shot in low or natural light. Only the vintage photographs, talking-head interview clips and certain indoor scenes manage to impress (or at least hold their own), but even the least impressive visuals are still fairly watchable.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p image resolution.

Not much to say about the audio, as its quality is likewise dependent on the source material. Dialogue is typically clear and easy to understand, the music cues are balanced nicely and there's even a good amount of channel separation along the way. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Captions are included for the main feature or extras.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen below, the simple but classy menu designs are smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase and includes a Booklet with an essay by Charles Mee adapted from BAM: The Complete Works.

Bonus Features

Leading things off is feature-length Audio Commentary with director Michael Sladek, who provides additional notes about BAM's history and, of course, this documentary's inception, production and impact. On a related note are 11 Extended Interviews with many of the featured participants including Laurie Anderson, Peter Brook, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Alan Rickman, Isabella Rossellini, Robert Wilson and others. These range from 3-8 minutes apiece and topics of discussion include NYC in the 1970s, Broadway, acting in film vs. theater, performance spaces, constructive criticism, cultural diversity, the 1960s music and art scene, rock shows vs. opera, Spike Lee and much more. These chats are interesting enough on their own terms but I can see why some of the more repetitive topics were cut from the finished film.

Two Deleted Scenes ("The Speaker's Progress" and "I Don't Believe in Outer Space", 11 minutes total) are also here; unlike the talking-head interview clips these veer off in slightly different directions and are more rehearsal and performance-based pieces. Closing things out are the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:35) and a handful of Previews for other Cinema Guild releases. This is a pretty decent selection of bonus features overall, especially for a documentary.

Final Thoughts

Michael Sladek's BAM 150 is undoubtedly aimed at those with a previous connection to Brooklyn's long-running cultural institution, but outsiders should also enjoy the show. This documentary alternates between a valuable collection of historical footage (including some terrific vintage photographs and sound clips) and a glimpse of more current events, providing an even-handed look at one of New York City's most vital and relevant landmarks. Cinema Guild's DVD offers plenty of support, pairing a solid A/V presentation with a generous assortment of appropriate extras. Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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