Ah, the audio commentary… So often a chief selling point on DVD and Blu-ray packaging, but does anyone actually listen to these things? Well, we do, and in this week’s Roundtable, we’ll tell you some of our favorites.
Did you realize that the audio commentary was first pioneered by the Criterion Collection all the way back in 1984 for the Laserdisc release of ‘King Kong’? Ever since then, the popular feature has become a staple on every video disc format to follow: Laserdisc, DVD, HD DVD and now Blu-ray. These days, you can even download fan-created tracks or unofficial spoof commentaries (such as RiffTrax) from the internet to sync up with your movie playback. For this Roundtable, we’ll open up discussion to any and all of these forms of audio commentary.
(Incidentally, if you’re wondering what the banner image at the top of this post is about, that’s a photo taken during the recording of a commentary track for ‘The Simpons’. The participants from back to front are: Max Pross, Matt Selman, Tom Gammill, Dan Castellanta, Hank Azaria, Mark Hoppus, Tony Hawk, J. Stuart Burns and Matt Groening. While none of our staff actually chose a ‘Simpsons’ commentary for their favorite, this was the best photo that Google could find for me.)
The regular commentary track for View Askew’s ‘A Better Place‘ isn’t bad by any means, but there’s a hidden track on the disc that is, by far, the most bizarre and hilarious thing I’ve ever heard. After viewing the film, go to the Special Thanks page and select “The Pizza Guy.” Doing so will open up a secret menu with this track, which features the same participants (director Vincent Pereira and most of the main cast), only this time they’re all drunk and/or stoned out of their minds. Bryan Lynch decides to have a lisp and play [REDACTED] of Fangoria magazine, and it’s one of the most mean-spirited things you’ll ever hear. Never before has someone on a commentary track wondered what a garment in the film thought of the film. The (horribly wrong) secrets of filmmaking are revealed. And their labor of love gets mocked non-stop.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
It’s not all that tough to track down a really great audio commentary for a really great film. I thought this time that I’d write about a commentary track that’s fascinated me for years and years, and it’s for a movie I’ve never really been able to stomach: ‘A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell‘. Director Brett Piper tells a slew of really great stories: doing the movie’s ambitious stop-motion effects work on his kitchen table, the police repeatedly being called in as savages dragged actress Linda Corwin around on a leash, a film lab with the best of intentions mutilating some of Piper’s optical effects work, and shooting the flick on a spring-wound 16mm camera with no sync sound at all.
The thing that really keeps me coming back to this commentary is how unrepentantly vicious Piper is towards Troma. He complains about how the distributor retitled the movie from ‘The Dark Fortress’ to something so shamelessly exploitative (never mind the lack of nymphoid barbarians or dinosaur hells), the insultingly terrible “deals” they’ve tried to make with him over the years, the ridiculous prologue Troma stapled on here, and how the cult studio’s fan base are a bunch of slobbering hornballs with double-digit IQs. Brett Piper knows that Troma is too cheap to edit any of that out of the commentary, and he really doesn’t hold back. At the same time, Piper plays it equal opportunity and doesn’t hesitate to tear apart his own movie either. It’s hard to really recommend ‘A Nymphoid Barbarian’ on its own, but that audio commentary does make the DVD pretty much essential viewing.
M. Enois Duarte
The potential to deliver a good audio commentary is always there in every movie. It all depends on the conversation and the enthusiasm of the people delivering it, particularly when they share anecdotes about the technical or creative process of filmmaking. There are a few commentaries I’ve enjoyed over the years, but only one in recent memory has left a lasting impression. Say what you want about Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen‘, but the Blu-ray disc itself pushed forward what the high-def format is capable of. In effect, it raised the bar for what the future of audio commentaries can be. We are visual creatures by nature, and this Blu-ray takes advantage of that fact by filling the screen with comparison stills and entertaining pop-up trivia. The commentary portion has Snyder dissecting his own film via split-screen and explains the magic of movie-making with before-and-after footage and other technical details. Since that initial experience, I find myself now unconsciously comparing other secondary tracks and conversations to it. And I’m anxiously waiting the next great innovation in audio commentaries.
For my money, the best commentary around is Robert Rodriquez’s track for ‘Desparado‘. The film is a fantastic over-the-top action movie with explosions and shoot-outs galore. On the commentary, Rodriquez explains in detail how he took a relatively modest budget of $7 million and made it look like $70 million. It turns out that you can save a lot of money by re-using the same two stuntmen over and over. (“There goes Bob across the bar. There’s Bob again flying through the air.”) Rodriquez’s enthusiasm for filmmaking is contagious, and he’s genuinely funny. If you have any interest in filmmaking, you’ll enjoy hearing about the budget challenges he faced and how he was able to work around them to realize his vision. The commentary for ‘El Mariachi’, the $7,000 prequel to ‘Desparado’, is also well worth a listen.
For some reason it hasn’t been included on either of the Blu-ray releases of ‘The Usual Suspects‘, but if you can track down the Special Edition DVD or even the mid-’90s Laserdisc (that’s where I heard it first), there is no better audio commentary for a kid who wants to make movies than the play-by-play observations director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie provide for their breakout film. This is exactly what audio commentaries were made for! If there’s a kid in your life with Hollywood dreams, get them a DVD with this commentary.
There have been so many audio commentaries over the years that I’ve just loved, but when Josh said that we could pick a RiffTrax for this if we wanted to, I had to go with the RiffTrax for the first ‘Transformers‘. It’s one of the best riffing sessions the guys have ever done. It lambastes the movie for its silliness, and rips it limb from limb like an Autobot dismantling a Decpticon. “Now that was an effective use of the bike-cam” is a classic quote when the camera is inexplicably placed on Shia’s bike as he rides into the warehouse district. Anybody who’s listened to it will remember with fondness the “Lucas the Body Bag” fiasco as the guys go off for a good two minutes talking about what they’d name their body bags after John Tuturro spouts out a line of dialogue that actually does sound like he says, “Lucas the body bag!” The entire riff is full of clever one-liners like that. It’s really the RiffTrax guys at the top of their game. If you haven’t yet, take the time out to listen to it. Great stuff.
Some audio commentaries provide revelations about the filmmaking process, but what fun are those? Now, take the 2002 comedy ‘Rules of Attraction‘. I don’t specifically remember anything about the movie except that it was made during a time that I felt like the world was obsessed with Shannyn Sossamon. The commentary, though, is brilliant. Skip past the dull technical commentaries about how things were made, and you’ll find a special commentary track by none other than Carrot Top. He’s not in the movie at all, and he very clearly hasn’t even seen it, but he does commentary anyway. And you know what? It’s actually really funny.
Honestly, I usually dread the prospect of listening to audio commentaries. Far too many of them are so deadly dull. However, I have a pair of favorites that are equally tied for my affections, and they’re both related to Paul Verhoeven movies. The first is the commentary by feminist critic and author Camille Paglia on ‘Basic Instinct‘. Yes, this really happened, and it’s awesome! An unabashed fan of the film, the self-described “feminist bisexual egomaniac” uses her patented brand of over-analysis to put the movie’s story, themes, and style into context with the tradition of Hollywood femme fatales, psychoanalysis, classical mythology and Cubist art, among many other things. She does so using phrases like “wet tumescent sexual attraction” with deadly seriousness. This audio lecture is riotously entertaining, and also quite informative.
Just as good is the “Greatest Movie Ever Made” commentary on ‘Showgirls‘, delivered by a writer named David Schmader whose only association with the movie is that he adores it for the trash masterpiece that it is. Schmader hosted annotated screenings of the film that were popular enough to draw the attention of MGM, which signed him right up to record a commentary. In the track, he describes the “incredible density of failure that makes Showgirls sublime.” This guy really gets the movie. His enjoyment of it as he watches again is palpable and frequently hilarious. In fact, watching with this commentary makes the movie far more entertaining than watching it without.
That’s what we like. Tell us about your favorite audio commentaries in the Comments.