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Porgy and Bess: An American Voice

Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by the University of Michigan
Directed by Nigel Noble
VHS, color, 84 min.
College - Adult

Reviewed by Brad Eden, Ph.D., Head, Web and Digitization Services, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

Narrated by Ruby Dee, and interspersed throughout with comments by social and cultural historians, this film is a history of "the first truly American opera," Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin. The film begins with a dramatization of Dubois Hayward, the white Charleston native who first wrote the novel in 1925. The rest of the film examines Gershwin's process of writing the opera, its reception by the American and European public, and its various manifestations in the last 65 years.

The stage production premiered in 1927, the opera was written and performed in 1935, the film version was produced in 1959, and the TV production was done in 1993. Each rendition of this masterpiece was represented in the film by individuals who participated in the performances. For instance, the first Porgy and Bess talk about their experiences, and a number of famous black personages (Dianne Carroll, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Maya Angelou, and Sammy Davis Jr. to name a few) all have connections in some way to this opera, and provide comments and opinions on their role and some of the controversies related to the opera. The film ends with the original Porgy and Bess listening to their recorded performance of the opera's premiere in 1935, and their emotional response to the event.

Porgy and Bess: An American Voice is wonderfully arranged, both cinematically and informationally, to present the history of this truly unique American musical masterpiece. Highlights of each of the various stage and opera productions are given, historic African-American singers and actors provide commentary on their roles in certain performances and venues throughout, and experts provide general explanation of cultural and historical impacts that the opera has had in America and around the world. Another quality video by Films for the Humanities & Sciences.

Highly recommended for all audiences.