As both a full-time writer and stay-at-home parent of three children, two cats, and a dog, my days tend to be packed. There is joy in my responsibilities, to be sure, but it’s often balanced by stress, doubt, and the sense of futility experienced by all artists (and parents). However, there is one tiny area where I do find moments of absolute unqualified joy: the audio commentary.
I discovered my love for movies – and stories – simultaneously: with the 1977 release of STAR WARS, followed by years of magazines and books that picked over its sources and influences. And to this day, I love movies almost as much as I do books. They’re both ways to tell stories, after all, and the things that make a good story apply in both forms. And just as I learn from every book I read, I pick up things from movies as well.
I’m old enough to have discovered commentaries on laserdisc, the first high-end home-video format that was really designed for hard-core movie fans. With four available audio tracks (two digital and two analog), directors and critics started adding their thoughts, memories, and analyses to movies. This was a total novelty: before, there were books about movies and occasional documentaries. But to have someone explain the movie AS YOU WATCHED IT was a revelation.
The first audio commentary was for the laserdisc edition of KING KONG, the second release by the Criterion Collection. The first director’s commentary – also from Criterion – was done by Martin Scorsese for the laserdisc of TAXI DRIVER. Once DVDs took over, commentaries proliferated and are now considered de rigueur for most new releases. There are some notable exceptions: David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, Terence Malick, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Spielberg all refuse to do them. But most contemporary filmmakers understand that it’s a standard part of the value-added package of DVD and Blu-ray releases, and, more, that it’s the chance for them to really make the case for their films.
I love critic Rudy Behlmer, who did about twenty before retiring for some real classics like CASABLANCA, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, FRANKENSTEIN, and GONE WITH THE WIND. He started in the days of laserdisc and pretty well helped define the commentary form. He’s got one of those warm, easy-going voices that feels like you’re sitting by the fire, having a glass of wine with your favorite college professor. He also seems to genuinely love all these movies.
Stephen Prince, an expert on classic Japanese cinema, provides Criterion’s commentaries for Akira Kurosawa’s films. His ability to place the films in both their historical and cultural context is second to none, and his commentary for KWAIDAN is one of my absolute favorites. He’s also done them for some Sam Peckinpah movies.
Speaking of Peckinpah, the Dog Brothers – Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor, David Weddle, and Nick Redman – have done commentaries for the majority of Peckinpah’s DVD releases. Having four distinct voices – as well as four points of view – might sound chaotic, but in reality, it’s a lot more like hanging out with some really cool people. Their enthusiasm for Peckinpah is balanced by an awareness of his flaws, both as a person and filmmaker, and the way those flaws informed his films. Obviously it helps to be a Peckinpah fan, but if you are, then you won’t regret taking the time to listen to them.
For directors, no one beats Francis Ford Coppola. Whether talking about THE GODFATHER, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE CONVERSATION or even his lesser-known films like TETRO, he brings just the right amount of enthusiasm without ever sliding into self-aggrandizement. In fact, the way he explains them, his greatest moments seem like the simplest and most obvious ideas – certainly not the work of any “genius.” He’s also perceptive about his films’ flaws; for example, he says (and I agree) that the real problem with GODFATHER III wasn’t the presence of Sophia Coppola, but the absence of Robert Duvall.
A close second is Peter Jackson, particularly his legendary commentaries for THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Jackson is a film-fan director like so many today, learning his craft from old movies. But he also loves home video, and so he knows what a good commentary should be like. Since his tracks are all recorded fairly soon after each film’s production, there’s not a lot of perspective (I’d love to have him redo his KING KONG commentary in another ten years), but his enthusiasm is genuine and infective.
Guillermo del Toro brings the same enthusiasm, and his commentaries tend to cover his concepts and ideas more than anything technical, which is appropriate for someone with such a unique vision. Further, and far more rare, he’s a serious film fan who seldom puts homages or direct quotes into his movies; he can trace how certain things inspired him, but the end result remains uniquely his own (so many contemporary filmmakers could stand to learn this lesson).
Julie Taymor is an extremely thoughtful, deliberate director who has triumphed on both stage and screen. Her commentary for THE TEMPEST, with Helen Mirren playing the usually-masculine lead role, is equally thoughtful and deliberate, while her comments on FRIDA explain the intricacies of recreating the past as well as bringing her vision to a project initiated by someone else (star Salma Hayek). Her first commentary – for TITUS – revealed a total mastery of the form, speaking to the listener as if to an equal (which I surely wish I was).
Director Stephen Sommers may not be on the same critical level as Coppola, Jackson, del Toro, or Taymor, but his commentaries are among my favorites. THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY RETURNS and THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994 version) are three standouts, but even VAN HELSING is a good listen. He is eager to explain why he made the choices he did, points out moments that don’t make sense, and generally comes across as a guy it’d be a lot of fun to hang out with. I still regret that he didn’t record one for his recent film version of ODD THOMAS.
The BBC’s releases of DOCTOR WHO contain some great tracks as well; luckily, they were done in time to get some of the original creators – such as producer Verity Lambert – on the record before they passed away. They’ve appeared on almost every episode, a staggering amount of content when you consider the show’s been around for fifty years. And any episode with Nicholas Courtney or Tom Baker on the commentary is going to be fun.
All the James Bond movies (except QUANTUM OF SOLACE) come with commentaries, and nothing beats Roger Moore’s trips down memory lane. Recorded many years after the fact, they display the same charm and dry wit as his characters, and make even his weakest entries (i.e., A VIEW TO A KILL and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN) enjoyable. He’s the only actor to play Bond who seems to have both enjoyed it at the time and still remember it with fondness. That affection definitely comes across.
So what’s so joyful about a good commentary? It creates the sense of sharing the moment with people whose work I admire in as informal a way as a non-celebrity like me is ever likely to experience, chatting about the films they’ve made and those they love, explaining how things were done and what didn’t quite work. For a few brief moments, in my imagination, we’re equals. Friends, even.
I typically listen to them just before going to sleep, with earbuds and a tiny personal blu-ray player. It becomes an intimate experience then: buried under the covers, the stress and worries of the day either over or at least pushed aside for the night, just me and the voices of talented people sharing their secrets. I used to dream of doing commentaries for some of my own favorite films (I could do great ones for RED RIVER and Branagh’s HENRY V; just sayin’), but it’s clear that dream, like so many others, has to fall by the wayside. And that’s okay; I still have hours and hours of great commentaries waiting for me.
Alex Bledsoe grew up in Tennessee, an hour north of Memphis (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (birthplace of Tina Turner). He’s been a reporter, editor, photographer, and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. He’s written thirteen novels; his most recent was the fifth novel in his Tufa series, GATHER HER ROUND. He lives in a big yellow house in Wisconsin. You can find him at alexbledsoe.com on Facebook, Twitter (@AlexBledsoe), and Instagram (@alexbledsoewriter).