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Victory World presents
Nathaniel Saunders: Bimini Nights (2002)

"The Big Fat Slob in Bimini / Is the night we had fun"
- Nathaniel Saunders, in his musical tribute to his friend Ernest Hemingway

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 28, 2002

Stars: Nathaniel Saunders
Other Stars: Jimmy Smith, Ralph "Skinner" Brown, Cleveland "Mr. Lion" Francis
Director: Tony Brummel

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:12m:51s
Release Date: January 29, 2002
UPC: 746105016996
Genre: music

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B+C-C B-

DVD Review

The democratization of entertainment is something that giant conglomerates don't want you to think much about—it's why Napster got squashed like a bug, for instance. But the threshold for producing something worthwhile and informative has dropped dramatically in recent years, and as the technology continues to race forward, it's likely to become easier still to produce (or to seek out) something that hasn't been market researched to death, something that speaks from the heart.

This DVD is a pretty fair case in point. It's a profile of Nathaniel Saunders, a musician on the island of Bimini now well into his 90s, who's sort of a Bahamian troubadour; it's a look at the man, his music, his history and his world, and if it's not the most poshly produced DVD you'll ever pop into your player, it's brimming with enthusiasm and passion.

The production values are low—I'd bet that the equipment used came straight out of Circuit City, or something—which means that the music isn't recorded with much panache, and that both lyrics and conversation can be difficult to make out. (Saunders' Bahamian accent is pretty thick, too, so it takes a whole lot of attention to get much of what he says.) But that's not the point, as the producer of this DVD seem to be equal parts sociologist, documentarian, music historian and unabashed fan. The effort seems to be to do for Saunders what Alan Lomax did decades ago for folk and bluegrass music in this country—that is, to capture the sound in the original setting, before it's corrupted by the world, and while Saunders, who lived through almost the entire twentieth century, is still such a trooper. (Lomax's Anthology of American Folk Music is an extraordinary thing to listen to, all these years later.)

There are audio-only tracks for sixteen of Saunders's songs (51m:14s), and they're all tuneful enough; unfortunately for those of us new to this music, a lyric sheet is provided only for one, Big Fat Slob, a tribute to Ernest Hemingway. (Hemingway was a frequent visitor to Bimini and a friend of Saunders, who, I'd bet, has been dining out on Papa stories for decades.) Saunders plays the banjo, and he's backed up by a drummer, bass guitarist and guitarist; the influences of calypso and reggae are readily evident, but it's difficult to precisely categorize the musical style. Saunders seems to enjoy spinning a good yarn more than anything else, and wants his audience to have a fine time along with him; there's not a tremendous amount of musical or lyrical sophistication, but his music is readily accessible, upbeat and a pretty unfiltered expression of the man.

An extended interview with Saunders (42m:56s) is really more of a rambling conversation, interspersed with bits of Saunders's own family history (he's the father of nine), the famous folks he's met (including of course Hemingway, as well as the Duke of Windsor), a few bars from his own compositions, and random bits of music like White Cliffs of Dover. Saunders has probably been telling these tales for years, and the producer isn't exactly Mike Wallace, but Saunders is excellent company nonetheless.

There's documentation of the Recording Session (38m:41s), in what seems to be a rather makeshift studio; Saunders and the rest of the musicians have a fine time with the music, as well as doing some hamming for the camcorder. (The handheld camera work can be a little nauseating, however.) A random array of extras (described below) round out the disc, and while it's all pretty interesting, the DVD is so decentralized that it can be a little hard to know just what's what. I'm not looking for a Biography-style profile of Saunders, but something like a chronology of his life or some other sort of general overview might have gone a long way toward situating the man and his music in a broader, more accessible context.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Picture quality is very shoddy, which is all right given the handmade quality of the whole enterprise, but unfortunately it means that occasionally the image is so dark as to be inscrutable. Also, as mentioned previously, the camera work may make you reach for the antacid; even though this was done on the cheap, you can't help but wish that the filmmakers had ponied up a couple of extra dollars for a tripod.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: A boom mike might have been another worthy addition to the production, in the interview with Saunders especially, for the questions are much clearer than the answers. (Seems as if that's because the interviewer is next to the camera.) The music tracks have a winning, garage band quality to them, but unfortunately the volume level dips with some frequency during most of the songs.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Music/Song Access with 16 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Bimini history
  2. local recipes
  3. tribute to Ernest Hemingway
  4. Victory World catalog
Extras Review: It's hard to know just what to consider part of the feature, and what part of the extras, but here's a quick runthrough of what's on the disc other than the features discussed above: A history of the island of Bimini is five brief panels. Recipes for eight local dishes are provided, ranging from conch fritters to Johnny cakes, and they all sound very yummy. (They look tasty in the accompanying photographs, too.) The photo gallery provides seventeen images, of the musicians, the island, and Saunders's homemade amplifier. The tribute to Hemingway is an excerpt from the writer's Islands in the Stream describing Bimini, and a brief overview of his fondness for the place. The listing of other Victory World titles provides only cover art, though it's unclear if these are DVDs or CDs.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

It's hard not to be just enchanted by Saunders and his music, and this DVD seems to be a labor of love by one of his biggest fans. (The disc even encourages you to get other people to buy it, so Saunders can receive royalty checks with some regularity.) It lacks the spit and polish of a slickly produced studio DVD, and while it's easy to get cranky about the technical shortcomings, it's much harder not to be won over by the warmth and the work of the principal subject.


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