Bessie Blu-ray Review

Ralph Potts reviews this HBO Films biopic that focuses on the transformation of a struggling young singer into “The Empress of the Blues,” one of the most successful and influential recording artists of the 1920s.

The Review at a Glance:
(max score: 5 )



Audio/Video total rating:
( Max score: 100 )



Studio and Year: HBO – 2015
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Feature running time: 135 minutes
Genre: Drama/Biopic

Disc Format: BD-50
Encoding: AVC
Video Aspect: 1.78:1
Resolution: 1080p/24

Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, French DTS 5.1, Spanish Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Starring: Queen Latifah, Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander. Mike Epps, Tory Kittles, Tika Sumpter, Oliver Platt, Bryan Greenberg, Charles S. Dutton, Mo’Nique
Directed by: Dee Rees
Music by: Rachel Portman
Written by:Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois
Region Code: A

Blu-ray Disc release Date: September 1, 2015

“Survival began with a song”

My Take:

Bessie offers an intimate look at the determined woman whose immense talent and love for music took her from anonymity in the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville to the 1920s blues scene and international fame. Capturing Bessie’s professional highs and personal lows, the film paints a portrait of a tenacious spirit who, despite her own demons, became a celebrated legend. Throughout the years, Bessie Smith has served as an inspiration for such illustrious singers as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, among others.

I saw Bessie when it debuted on HBO a few months back and found it to be an earthy period biopic that seemed grounded and purposed in its portrayal of this iconic and determined woman. Clearly a work of passion for all involved it was apparent that Queen Latifah and director/co-writer Dee Rees had a singular vision. The idea to make Bessie Smith’s story into a film began nearly 20 years ago. Oddly enough a very young and relatively unknown Queen Latifah screen tested for the part and was in line to play the role. Over the years the film saw various production problems that stalled its making until HBO and Dee Rees came onboard.

Nominated for 12 Emmy awards, including Outstanding TV Movie, Bessie features a wonderful performance by Latifah in the title role and successfully reaches back to the era of her time through apropos shooting locations, superb production/costume designs and an excellent supporting cast. The script, direction, and cinematography contribute to the proceedings with the end result being a stirring and powerful drama that conveys the spirit of not only the title character but the times that brought her full circle.

Parental Guide:

The rating is for nudity, sexual content, language, violence and strong thematic material.

AUDIO/VIDEO – By The Numbers:
REFERENCE = 92-100/EXCELLENT = 83-91/GOOD = 74-82/AVERAGE = 65-73/BELOW AVERAGE = under 65

**My audio/video ratings are based upon a comparative made against other high definition media/blu-ray disc.**

Audio: 86
(Each rating is worth 4 points with a max of 5 per category)

  • Dynamics:
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  • Low frequency extension * (non-rated element): [img] [/img]

Video: 94
(Each rating is worth 4 points with a max of 5 per category)

  • Resolution/Clarity:
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Bessie comes to Blu-ray Disc from HBO Home Entertainment featuring 1080p AVC encoded video that has an average bitrate of 32 Mbps and lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound that has an average bitrate of 3.5 Mbps.

This high definition video presentation looks great and features a distinctive visual aesthetic that utilizes a reserved chromatic palette which makes use of sepia tones and muted primaries. This along with theapplication of filtering/lighting provides the period style look the show’s creators were striving for. Certain sequences/elements make bolder use of color with noticeably deeper saturation. Contrast and brightness are well balanced which results in distortion free and satisfying image quality. Blacks appear deep and punchy but delineation in low level scenes can range from very good to average. Flesh tones are a bit on the bland side but retain enough complexional variety to avoid appearing lifeless. Close ups offer appreciable texture and subtle refinement. Wide angle shots, especially those shot in the natural light of day, have excellent depth, with sharp resolute definition quality that is rarely questionable. I didn’t notice any signs of compression or video related artifacts.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio sound keeps pace with the video and is quite good. Dynamics are robust and highs are crisp without being strident or edgy. Dialogue is rendered with defining tonal expression and room penetrating depth through the center channel. The front soundstage is diffused with excellent separation and clearly articulated detail. The presentation makes ample use of the entire surround platform. At times it opens up quite nicely to create an involving surround mix containing a mix of directional and ambient sounds. Bass response doesn’t reach subterranean levels however it appropriately supports the source elements and provides an appreciably tight, and punchy low end.

Bonus Features:

  • (HD) Bessie: A creative journey – 18 minute documentary
  • (HD) Filming in Georgia – 3 minute featurette
  • Digital HD Copy

Final Thoughts:

Bessie is a stirring and powerful biopic that offers an intimate look at the determined woman whose immense talent and love for music took her from anonymity in the rough-and-tumble world of vaudeville to the 1920s blues scene and international fame. It comes to Blu-ray from HBO Home Entertainment featuring reference quality high definition video, excellent lossless sound quality and middling supplement package that takes a look behind the scenes at the production. If you have an interest in its subject matter Bessie is a rewarding and poignant film that is worth checking out on Blu-ray.

Reference Review System:

JVC DLA-RS4910 3D Ready 1080p High Definition Front Projector
(Calibrated with Calman 5 & C6 Meter from Spectracal)
Stewart Filmscreen – Studiotek 130 G3 100” 16×9 Screen
Carada Masquerade Horizontal Masking System
Marantz AV8802A 13.2 Channel Audio/Video Processor
Sherbourn Technologies – 7/200 Seven Channel Amplifier
B&K Reference 200.7 Series 2 Seven Channel Amplifier
Oppo BDP-103D Universal Disc/3D capable Blu-ray Player (With Darbee video processing)
Panasonic DMP-BDT310 3D capable Blu-ray Player (HDMI Audio/Video)
Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player (HDMI Audio/Video)
Sony Playstation 3 Blu-ray disc Player (HDMI Audio/Video)
System Controller: Apple iPad/iRule Pro HD Universal Remote Control
Canton “Ergo” and In-Ceiling series speakers
Axiom Audio QS8 Quadpolar speakers
SVS PB-13 Ultra (Rosenut finish)
Panamax M5400-PM Power Conditioner/Surge Protector
Wireworld, Better Cables (Silver Serpent) – Audio/Video/Speaker Cabling
Cool Components – CP-CP102 cooling package