Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, my name is CinemaslaveJoe. And I’m an audio commentary-aholic.
As a screenwriter and filmmaker, I find myself captivated by (indeed, obsessed with) the whole process of filmmaking. Nothing fascinates me like lurid behind-the-scenes tales of my favorite movies. My bookshelf sags beneath the weight of the many cinematic tomes sprawled across it. Every free moment I have is spent on-line, ferreting out additional nuggets of information about my favorite flicks.
As with laserdiscs, the thing that initially attracted me to the DVD format was not the improved video clarity, but the presence of audio commentary tracks; that is, audio essays recorded by the filmmaker and/or actors, allowing us mere mortals a chance to hear all about the writing, shooting and editing of the movie in question. When I began amassing my DVD collection (which has long since declared martial law, overrun my apartment, and eaten the cat), I initially purchased only those titles that contained at least one commentary track.
I soon discovered, however, that not all commentaries (or commentators!) are created equal. (Lesson #1: A film’s relative merit has absolutely no bearing on the entertainment value of its commentary.) Some of the best films ever made come equipped with sub-standard “yak tracks” (as we commentary connoisseurs like to call them); likewise, some of the worst pieces of cinematic sin ever photographed can be partially redeemed by hearing an engaging narrator place a new spin on it.
Now, I know I’m not the only insatiable commentary fiend out there who’s bought a DVD specifically to check out the director’s remembrances and then been mightily disappointed by the laconic prattle contained therein. (Anyone else been put to sleep by John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chat about Conan the Barbarian?) So since I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive resource detailing the merits of audio commentary tracks, I’d like to present (in no particular order):
Ten Great Audio Commentary Tracks (Volume One)
(And again, please remember that we’re discussing the best commentaries, not necessarily the best films.)
Let’s start our journey through DVD Land with a collection of films I like to call the “Movie Studios Are Evil” Trilogy:
1)BRAZIL (Criterion Collection): Audio Commentary by Director Terry Gilliam
2)URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT: Audio Commentary by Director John Ottman
3)BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2: Audio Commentary by Director Joe Berlinger
These three commentaries are required listening for all aspiring filmmakers. We’ve all heard how studio executives occasionally take a movie out of a director’s hands and change major portions of it (i.e., by restructuring the order of scenes, shooting new footage, adding “audience friendly” references and jokes, and removing anything that’s potentially offensive), but rarely has this practice been discussed so openly and bitterly by the filmmakers in question.
In the Brazil track, a still livid Terry Gilliam recounts his epic struggle with Sid Sheinberg, one-time head of Universal, over the studio’s unrepentant butchery of his beloved masterpiece. The full details of the Gilliam/Sheinberg struggle are lengthy enough to fill a book (and indeed they have: check out Jack Matthew’s fascinating The Battle of Brazil, available at your local bookstore), but suffice it to say the war wasn’t pretty. In his commentary track, Gilliam proudly recounts the guerilla tactics he employed to screen the film for critics even though Universal specifically forbade it, the temper tantrums he had to throw in order to get the movie released at all, and the reasons he allowed Criterion to include the despised “happily ever after” cut of the film in their stunning Brazil box set. But at least Gilliam’s struggle had a happy ending: the director’s cut is now freely available on both DVD and laserdisc.
Ottman and Berlinger, regrettably, had no such luck. In Urban Legends: Final Cut, a bemused Ottman recounts the numerous bizarre cuts and deletions his ironically titled film went through before the studio deemed it releasable. Ottman, who made his directorial debut with the movie in question, seems fairly resigned about the film’s fate, and comes across as a pleasant enough fellow. Although sad to have his work changed by the studio, he’s smart enough not to rock the boat… or his career.
Not so with poor Joe Berlinger, whose Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was taken away from him, restructured by the studio without his approval or permission, and then shipped to theaters with his name still attached, leaving him to take the blame when the film bellyflopped. Berlinger spends most of his time spewing bile at various studio executives and discussing the many differences between his preferred (and still unreleased) director’s cut of the movie and the theatrical version. Berlinger also expresses his hope that the director’s cut will eventually hit DVD; after hearing this fascinating track (and the way Artisan royally screwed him), I second that emotion.
Next, in the “I’m Really, Really Sorry” Department:
4)ZARDOZ: Audio Commentary by Writer/Director John Boorman
I’ll give John Boorman (director of Excalibur and Exorcist II) credit: he freely admits that his 1974 cheesefest, Zardoz, is terrible. In this hysterical commentary track, Boorman good-naturedly talks the viewer through his infamously trashy cult classic, which stars Sean Connery as a warrior who leads his people in a war against their oppressive stone god, Zardoz. (In all honesty, Zardoz doesn’t seem to be much of a threat: he spends his time solemnly droning, “The guns are good, the penis is evil!” over and over. You don’t suppose he’s really Lorrena Bobbit, do you?) Audiences will also learn how Boorman snared a name actor like Connery into the project for peanuts.
In the “Gee, I’m Glad to Be Here Today” Category:
5)BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA: Audio Commentary by Director John Carpenter and Actor Kurt Russell
I was torn between whether to include Big Trouble in Little China or John Carpenter’s The Thing on this list. Both tracks include the same commentators, both are extremely informative, and both are so open and delightfully unguarded that they’re an utter joy to listen to. In the end I chose Big Trouble — not because the commentary is necessarily more insightful, but because Carpenter and Russell are clearly delighted at the chance to get together and shoot the breeze. Although the duo provides a great deal of information on the making of the film, their spirited interaction is the selling point here. At one point, Carpenter and Russell seem to forget that they’re recording a commentary track at all, and go on a lengthy tangent about their children, their personal lives, and other non-relevant topics. This is one of the aspects I liked best: eavesdropping on a private conversation between two old, dear friends. Much fun.
In the “God, I Can’t Believe I Did This Stupid Movie” Department:
6)THE EVIL DEAD: Audio Commentary by Actor Bruce Campbell
Although Elite Entertainment’s wonderful DVD of The Evil Dead also includes a separate commentary with writer/director Sam Raimi, actor Bruce Campbell upstages him in a track all his own. Here, Campbell spills every conceivable bean about the making of this low-budget horror classic, gleefully pointing out every flaw and continuity error he can find. In addition to riffing the film ala Mystery Science Theater 3000, Campbell also brings a lot of insight about the world of low-budget filmmaking, playfully teases the film’s fans (“I bet you’re all playing some horrible drinking game as you watch this,”) and comes across as one of the nicest guys ever to grace a movie screen. There’s virtually no dead air on this track, either.
In the “Now, What Was I Supposed to Be Talking About Again?” category:
7)STORM OF THE CENTURY: Audio Commentary by Screenwriter Stephen King
Although Stephen King shares this commentary track with director Craig Baxley, we all know who the real star of the show is. King, in his first ever yak track, comes across as an amiable enough fellow, talking about virtually anything he can think of: his writing process, his battle with network executives over the amount of gore that can be shown on television, his favorite (and least favorite) cinematic adaptations of his novels… virtually everything except the movie he’s supposed to be discussing, the TV miniseries Storm of the Century. That’s not a complaint, however: King’s offhand, rambling style makes him come across as just another everyman, rather than one of the world’s most successful novelists. Whoever thought America’s Boogeyman could be so charming?
In the “Stop Or My Head Will Explode!” category:
8 )SEVEN SAMURAI (Criterion Collection): Audio Commentary by Japanese Film Historian Michael Jeck
Fans of Akira Kurosawa will eat this one up. Michael Jeck, a noted historian of Japanese film, talks to the viewer over the entire running time (well over three hours!) of the director’s greatest epic, Seven Samurai. Filled to the brink of overload with information about the making of the film and the distinguished career of its star, Toshiro Mifune, this somewhat scholarly track will no doubt fascinate all fans of Asian cinema.
In the “I Didn’t Know Fozzie Bear Did Audio Commentaries!” category:
9)LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS: Audio Commentary by Director Frank Oz
Muppet fans may get the giggles during certain portions of Frank Oz’s fascinating audio essay on Little Shop of Horrors (he just can’t hide that Fozzie Bear voice), but that doesn’t negate the value of what he’s saying. The director, who originally wanted nothing to do with the project, relates a great deal of behind-the-scenes information on the movie, including the amazing special effects that were used to bring the man-eating planet, Audrey II, to life. Oz reveals himself to be a devoted craftsman, and his take on the filmmaking process is one of the most fascinating I’ve yet stumbled across. I’d love to have dinner with this guy and just talk shop.
And finally, in the “Here’s Why I Get Paid More for Reviewing Movies Than You Do” category:
10)DARK CITY: Audio Commentary by Film Critic Roger Ebert
Film Critic Roger Ebert raised no shortage of eyebrows when he pronounced Dark City the best film of 1998. A lot of movie lovers, myself included, wondered what the heck our buddy Roger had been smoking at the time, and, more importantly, how we could get some too. Well, Ebert’s reasoning has now been made clear: on the Dark City DVD, Ebert defends his stance with cool assurance and verbal eloquence in a full-length audio commentary track. The critic discusses the influence of film-noir and German expressionism on director Alex Proyas, unravels some of the movie’s more obscure uses of symbolism for the audience, and makes quite a convincing case of why he thinks the movie is an underrated masterpiece. I didn’t like Dark City when I saw it in the theater, but after hearing this track, however, I have gained a great deal of admiration and respect for it. And Ebert remains casual and chatty throughout the entire commentary; there’s no dry, scholarly analysis to be found here.
Well, that’s it for today. This list is far from definitive, so don’t panic if I overlooked one of your favorite commentaries; I’m sure we’ll revisit the topic again in the future.