With the baseball season over, and the NHL season....delayed (ahem), I've had some time to go through my DVD collection and pick out some audio commentaries that I had not yet listened to. Usually it takes me awhile to get to a certain DVD's commentary. There's still dozens and dozens of them that I own that remain unheard.
I've listened to just about every type of audio commentary imaginable. There's what I call the "Eyesight to the blind" commentary, in which the speaker decides to tell you what is happening on the screen ("This guy just walked through the door. Now he's walking across the room..."). There's the "Facts on steroids" commentary, in which the speaker decides to tell you every single fact connected to the movie, no matter how trivial. (I've heard commentators who didn't just mention the relevant credits of a certain actor, they list EVERY CREDIT THE ACTOR EVER HAD.) Then there's the "We're watching a movie?" commentary, where the people involved just decide to shoot the bull for two hours and say absolutely nothing about the film they're supposed to be talking about.
An audio commentary is not as easy as it sounds. The average length of a feature film is about...what? 100 minutes? Could you talk about your favorite movie for 100 minutes? Could you make it interesting? Could you make it relevant? Could you avoid running out of things to say? Could you know how to pace yourself, and match that pace with the tempo of the film? Doing an audio commentary is basically like giving a performance. I'm not saying that every commentator has to sound like Morgan Freeman, but a decent sounding voice and the ability to articulate your thoughts are essential. It amazes me how many actors (who are performers) are lousy at commentaries. I guess the old saying "An actor is lost without a script" has a ring of truth to it. In my experience I have found that the bigger the name, the worse the commentary (George Lucas, anyone?).
There are a number of film scholars/historians/experts who do commentaries, and who have a lot of interesting, thought-provoking things to say....but their deliveries are as dry as dust. I can't tell you the number of times an audio commentary has caused me to fall asleep. (If you suffer from insomnia, try it sometime.)
Having said all that, here's a list of my five favorite (at the moment) DVD audio commentaries.
1. Sam Sherman--FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR
I know you are reading this and saying, "WHAT!!???" Well, let me explain. Sam Sherman was the theatrical distributor of this little gem, and he spent most of the 60s and 70s on the grindhouse level of the American independent film industry. Sherman's stories about the distribution, production, and promotion of low-budget features are an education. Sam's a great storyteller, and he's far more entertaining than the movie itself. He's never boring, and you feel as if he's having a conversation directly to you. I am absolutely serious about this--it is a great commentary.
2. Roger Ebert--CITIZEN KANE
Just about every film buff has seen KANE probably about a dozen times. But when you listen to Ebert's commentary, it's like watching it for the first time. Of course Ebert's knowledge about the film is astounding, but it's the little details and elements that Ebert brings attention to that make this a worthwhile listening experience. It's a shame Ebert was not able to do more of these.
3. Weird Al Yankovic (with Jay Levey)--UHF
This commentary gets high marks for it's originality. Weird Al not only gives you relevant information (including the actual street addresses were certain scenes were shot), he uses the commentary as a source for comic gags. And not just audio gags--visual gags as well. (At one point Weird Al announces he has to go for a while--and we actually see him get up and leave.) Weird Al also talks to co-star Michael Richards and fields a phone call from leading lady Victoria Jackson (of course the mainstream media now consider Richards and Jackson two of the most evil people who ever lived).
4. Tim Lucas--BLACK SUNDAY
Tim Lucas wrote the book on BLACK SUNDAY director Mario Bava (no, really...he DID write a book on Bava). Film expert Lucas (the founder of VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine) gives us all sorts of information and analysis, and there's no one better at dissecting a movie. BLACK SUNDAY has been re-issued on DVD and Blu-ray, and Lucas' commentary has always been included. Lucas has done similar work on a number of DVDs, but this one is his best, and it has a legendary reputation among horror film buffs.
5. Christopher Frayling--THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (Blu-ray)
Frayling wrote the book on Sergio Leone (no, really....he DID write a book on Leone). Listening to this is like taking a college course on Italian Westerns. The most impressive aspect about this is...GBU is about three hours long, and Frayling never runs out of material. He's interesting and informative right till the end.
I need to also mention film historians Tom Weaver, Greg Mank, and David Kalat. I couldn't really pick out just one of their many commentaries...they are all uniformly excellent.
Now...would you like to make a comment on my comments on commentaries?