The attention garnered by world music in the mid-’90s with bands such as the Gipsy Kings is given a closer look in the film “Black and White in Color,” the chronicle of a Romanian gypsy and her rise from club anonymity to European diva. A Mira Erdevicki documentary, it primarily takes place in the Czech Republic, where Vera Bila and her band Kale struggle to make ends meet with part-time jobs while trying to book gigs, do publicity spots and find time to rehearse. In following the process of becoming a profitable musician, we learn to understand much of her mentality: her fierce devotion to her family, her human weaknesses for food and gambling, her gift – an earthy and somber spirit of a voice that she can summon on a whim.
The constant lack of income is ironically juxtaposed with local rumors that Vera is a millionaire. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vera haggles over a cheap dress and cooks cabbage for her family in their small apartment. The bands’ manager sells sausages while the band is away in America because he cannot afford to purchase a plane ticket. The members of Kale are all relatives that have left their jobs of manual labor for the hope of a better standard of living in the entertainment business. The impoverished living conditions are an important character in the film.
Bila is depicted as a true original – a strongly opinionated woman with a boisterous laugh and a fiery spirit as large as her frame. Close attention is paid to her weight and diet, like her three portions of meat and potatoes. As Vera says, "I never lose weight, I don’t even want to … as long as my husband is happy with me, I’m fine. And if he stops fancying me, he can piss off and be done with it."
Like the torch singers of early American jazz, Vera has the gift of taking moments of deep loss, pain and regret and boiling them down to a synthesis which is a pure extract of heart, mind and voice. For all stories that are told in Vera Bila’s book of songs, there is a corresponding tale in "Black and White in Color." Erdevicki does a wonderful job of capturing these stories on film, creating an intimate portrait with Bila in focus, a band loyally by her side and a song playfully trying to escape her lips and come to life.
"Black and White in Color: A Portrait of a Gypsy Singer" screens Sunday, March 4, at 7:30 p.m. in Campbell Hall. $5 students; $6 general.