Steeped in the bohemian cool of Chicago’s 1990s Black creative scene, love jones—the smart, sexy, and stylish debut feature of writer-director Theodore Witcher—is a love story for anyone who has ever wondered: How do I know when I’ve found the one? Larenz Tate and Nia Long have magnetism and chemistry to burn as the striving, artistically talented twentysomethings—he’s a poet, she’s a photographer—who spark over their love of literature and jazz, but whose mutual reluctance to commit to a relationship leaves them both navigating an emotional minefield of confusion, jealousy, and regrets. Velvety cinematography; an unforgettable, eclectic soundtrack; sophisticated dialogue; and refreshingly low-key, naturalistic performances by an ensemble cast that also includes Isaiah Washington, Lisa Nicole Carson, Bill Bellamy, Bernadette Speakes, and Leonard Roberts come together in an intoxicating, seductively moody romance that engages both the heart and the mind.
The Criterion Collection presents Theodore Witcher’s love jones on Blu-ray, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration. The 35mm original A/B negatives were the source for the scan.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for this late 90’s film but the end high-definition presentation is nothing short of exceptional. The film is a character focused romance film, an attentive one, but fairly straight forward. Yet it still features a surprising visual flair that is all the more impressive when one considers the film is, criminally, the lone feature Witcher has directed. Witcher is very astute in his use of colour and shadows, a topic he talks about extensively in the included commentary, and this all is delivered in a stunning manner. Reds, blues, violets, and greens, all of it is elegantly saturated, bold and vivid, leaping off the screen. Highlights also look great and details don’t get eaten up too badly.
Another impressive aspect is how wonderfully the film’s grain ends up being rendered. As Witcher also mentions in the included commentary he did not want a grainy looking film, but he realized that, as the film is developed and prints are made, degradation in quality is all-but-guaranteed, and the image would get grainier in the process. This led to him looking into a combination of lighting and film stock that would allow him to keep the grain levels low and fine. With this presentation working directly off of the negatives what we get is a picture with a very fine yet very clean grain structure, the scan having picked it up all beautifully while Criterion’s encode, somewhat surprisingly, does an incredible job rendering it. The picture looks so sharp and clean, the grain barely registering, but it’s there, and this, in turn, leads to an exceptional level of detail.
I was also very impressed with the range present in the picture, a lot of the film taking place at night or dim interiors with limited light sources. Black levels can get a little heavy in places, flattening things out here and there, but on the whole there is an unbelievable level of detail present in the shadows with clean, subtle gradients. One of the most impressive moments in the film comes around a scene where the two are walking around a fountain during a foggy evening. On top of the fact that the encode renders this fog perfectly, no noise or banding present, the light also naturally disperses through it without a hitch and the end results look about as pure and photographic as you could hope. Interestingly, Witcher does not like the scene because he hadn’t planned on the fog, but due to time restrictions he had to shoot the film as is. I get where he’s coming from; when things don’t turn out exactly the way I want I’m rarely pleased about it. But it’s one of those things the likes of Bob Ross would have called a “happy little accident” and it really is a lovely looking scene and it is presented here in near-perfect manner.
All told, it’s an incredible shame this isn’t getting a 4K release as I could see a UHD, with a good HDR grading, being an absolute knockout. But as it is here it’s still a stunner of a presentation, one of Criterion’s better ones in recent memory.
Criterion presents the film with a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack. Dialogue and background effects are focused primarily to the fronts, panning present when called for, but it all sounds sharp and clean with excellent dynamic range and fidelity. The surrounds also pick up a few background effects, including in clubs or public settings, but they mostly kick in to handle the songs that appear throughout. Audio overall is sharp and crisp and incredibly clean, no damage present.
On top of a stellar presentation Criterion has also put together an impressive special edition for the film, packing on some great features. Those features include an audio commentary by Witcher himself, one that may take the award for being one of the best director commentaries I’ve listened to in recent memory. Witcher of course talks about the film’s inspirations and what he was aiming to accomplish with the end product, getting into the filmmakers that inspired him including the likes of Woody Allen (the opening directly inspired by Manhattan) and Robert Altman (overlapping dialogue being one of the takeaways). Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight even makes its way in there. Moreover, he delves deeply into just about every aspect of the production, from how he accomplished the film’s look to the jazz-infused score, and he even gets into test screenings and the alterations that came from those, one of which, to Witcher's amusement, involved audiences having issues around one character standing freely in the rain instead of looking for cover. But the moments I wasmost taken by was the ones where he seems to be reassessing some of his decisions or where he expresses regrets, whether it be cutting a story point or not getting that exact shot he wanted.
Another aspect I liked is where he recalls his experience as a first-time feature film director, explaining the growing pains around it and what it was like working with a studio like New Line, who appear to have left him alone for the most part. It’s this material that up-and-coming filmmakers may find most interesting since Witcher explains those unexpected issues that come up. There’s a lot of examples but one I found interesting is his explaining how the film ran too long and the studio, in one of the few times they sound to have stepped in, insisted on shortening the picture. Witcher explains how he accomplished this, but it involved cutting out a subplot around one character sending another character a letter that would end up getting lost, but due to some of the set-up being present in scenes that were otherwise needed, remnants of it can still be found within the film. In this case, there’s a sequence remaining where the future recipient is calling the post office about mail being stolen, and it was here where this whole subplot was first being set-up. But since it was part of a sequence that was needed for the main plot, it couldn’t be cut. It’s here where Witcher explains why it ends up working out, and it’s stuff like this that gives the track a real “film school” quality that excels it above other director commentary tracks. It’salso all the more impressive because Witcher is able to recall so much about the film 25 years later.
Honestly, if that track was the only extra on here it would have still made for an exceptional special edition but Criterion packs in more worthwhile content including a new interview between Witcher and film scholar Racquel J. Gates, running a lengthy 44-minutes. This is another great discussion where Witcher, impressively, manages to throw in some new stories and thoughts around the film that don't come up in the commentary, while Gates explains the impact the film has had on her and others, and how that has led to a lasting legacy that was unforeseen after the film initially bombed. Witcher talks a little more about the casting, particularly around Larenz Tate, Witcher shocked to learn the actor was nothing like the character he played in Menace II Society (he had thought they had literally just pulled some psycho off of the street), and then he touches on controversial aspects of the story, including where it appears Tate’s character is stalking Nia Long’s early on. But I ended up being most fascinated around Witcher’s answer to Gates’ question around what he would change if he made the film today, leading to a discussion on what was needed, at least at the time the film was made, to make a talky “low stakes” film work with audiences. Similar to the commentary, as they get into structural elements and the film’s humour, the interview ends up adding yet another “film school” like layer to the release’s batch of features. (Also worth noting, Witcher recalls his first gig in Hollywood as a writer for a Hughes Brothers feature from which he was eventually “fired.” He doesn’t mention what that project was but looking it up it appears to have been a film called Public Enemies, which was never finished.)
Criterion next includes a new interview between music scholars Mark Anthony Neal and Shana L. Redmond, who take the time to discuss the film’s soundtrack, with a focus on Lauryn Hill and how the music appropriately accompanies their respective moments in the film. Also here is footage from a 2017 panel discussion following a screening of the film, featuring Witcher, actors Nia Long, Larenz Tate, Isaiah Washington, Lisa Nicole Carson, Bill Bellamy, and other members of the crew, with director Barry Jenkins moderating. Here the cast and crew share stories around the production and talk about the film’s legacy. Funnily enough, Washington points out one scene he feels was a mistake, the same scene Witcher also points out as a mistake elsewhere on the disc’s features. The panel discussion runs around 58-minutes.
The disc then features a 5-minute making-of featurette made around the time of the film’s release and is nothing more than a promotional piece. The included insert then closes things off with an insightful and lengthy essay on the film, written by critic Danielle Amir Jackson.
Altogether it may not look like a lot of material but, save for the archival production featurette, it’s all high-quality content and worth the effort of working through, especially Witcher’s excellent commentary.
The title just kind of snuck in there on Criterion’s schedule but it’s one of their best releases so far this year.