The Slow Death of the Audio Commentary?

When I finally bought Dreamworks’ latest two animated movies, Rise of the Guardians and The Croods on DVD, I assumed that both would follow the long tradition of the studio of having an Audio Commentary with the filmmakers as one of the extras, but only the first movie had one. It seems that the distributor switch from Paramount to 20th Century Fox had one unfortunate casualty – the commentary track, an extra which had been around even longer than the DVD itself, going back almost to the 1980s with the emergence of the laserdisc and the capability of storing more than one soundtrack on an audiovisual medium. In today’s article in lieu of a dvd review, I’m looking at the probable fate of the audio commentary and introduce some of my favourite commentary tracks.

I have always been a huge fan of audio commentaries ever since I had bought the first DVDs back in 1999 – documentaries are great too, but the commentaries allow filmmakers and actors speak even more freely and exactly what is happening in a specific scene or how it was made. Many of them have fully embraced this possibility of directly talking to their audience, although some are not really good at it and others, like Steven Spielberg, have completely refused to talk about their movies in this way. But the majority of the audio commentaries out there today are thoroughly interesting and even funny and entertaining – there is nothing better than a group of actors or filmmakers having a lot of fun.

The big question is, why seem audio commentaries to be dying out? Probably because the casual viewer is just not so much interested in hearing a bunch of people yakking about how the movie was made. This is actually something not limited to commentary tracks, but also concerns extras like documentaries, deleted scenes and other material – even back in the early 2000s Disney did a small and not very representative telephone survey asking people if they were interested in such extras and surprisingly, many said no, prompting the studio to phase out their elaborate special editions only a few years later.

Luckily, one of the extras which has survived the longest up until now is the audio commentary, probably because it is the one which can be produced in the most cost-effective way. But if the interest of real cinephiles is not enough to keep the studios recording commentaries, they may really be on the way out. Or perhaps the absence of a commentary on The Croods is just a one-off fluke, which has only happened on Shrek the Third before – we will only know when Dreamworks’ next movie, Turbo, is going to be released on DVD. [Update 16.11.: I had no idea Turbo has already been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the USA, on the same day I posted this article! But the news are sadly not good: neither the DVD nor the Blu-Ray contain a commentary track, confirming my suspicions.]

Even if the audio commentary as an extra is slowly going to disappear, there are still tons of tracks to listen to. Here are some of my favourite commentaries…

The Dreamworks Animation commentaries have always been interesting even from the very beginning with the DVD and Laserdisc release of their first computer-animated movie Antz back in 1999. What makes their tracks so refreshingly different is that they do not patronize their listeners at all and instead talk rationally about many aspects of the making of their movies without resorting to praising themselves too much – most of them actually talk about the work of their crew as much as about their own contribution and never forget that the production of an animated movie is a huge collaboration between many talented people.

The James Bond special edition DVDs had and still have the best audio commentaries ever made. Earlier movies have tracks produced by the Ian Fleming Foundation made out of archival interviews, but later films beginning with the Roger Moore era also have many scene-specific commentaries from directors, producers and designers. Most notably are the tracks of The Spy Who Loved Me with Michael G. Wilson, Lewis Gilbert and Ken Adam all three together and Moonraker again with Michael G. Wilson, Lewis Gilbert, Christopher Wood and William P. Cartlidge, all telling wonderful stories from the making of the movie in a brilliantly entertaining way. The newer ultimate editions also added great solo commentaries by Roger Moore, but all the older tracks were ported over even to the current Blu-Ray editions and are very much worth listening to.

The classic Star Trek movies were originally released without extras, but the upgraded special editions from the early 2000s have some of the most amazing audio commentaries ever produced. Even The Motion Picture comes with a fantastic commenary by the late director Robert Wise, special-effects experts Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra and composer Jerry Goldsmith, but beginning with The Wrath of Khan it gets even more interesting with director and writer Nicholas Meyer taking over and proving to be a fantastic raconteur. The Search for Spock is even more surprising with a very engaging Leonard Nimoy, helped by the separately recorded producer Harve Bennett, cameraman Charles Correll and actress Robin Curtis. But topping this is The Voyage Home with both Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner together in one sound studio, talking with much enthusiasm and a lot of humour about the making of the movie and not showing any animosity against each other. William Shatner’s effort to talk about the train wreck that is The Final Frontier together with his daugther Melanie seems like a weak effort in comparison, but the triumphant return of Nicholas Meyer with The Undiscovered Country together with his writer Dennis Martin Flynn wonderfully rounds off the classic Star Trek commentaries.

The Star Wars Trilogy – the original of course – finally came to DVD in 2004 and, like the previous releases of the new trilogy, sported brand-new audio commentaries. You can say about George Lucas what you want, he is a great speaker and knows how to tell a story – his recollections may not be the most accurate or even sometimes a bit embellished, but despite his grandiosity he actually sounds quite reserved and humble about his movies. He is joined by the seperately recorded sound engineer Ben Burtt, special-effects maker Dennis Muren and actress Carrie Fisher, who add their own experiences about the making of the movies in refreshingly honest ways. For the enthusiasts, a lot of technical stuff is being talked about, the story development is not neglected and there are also many humorous anecdotes. While these tracks lack in terms of conversation between the

Red Dwarf is great science-fiction comedy, but the commentary tracks on all eight seasons and the Back to Earth special are even more comedy gold. The regulars Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules are joined, depending on the season they apperar in, by Norman Levitt, Hattie Hayridge, Robert Llewellyn and Chloe Annett, always together in the sound studio. Sometimes they have in-depth recollections to share, on other episodes they just goof around randomly, but they are always immensly entertaining and listening to the commentaries is as much fun as the episodes themselves. Sadly, no audio commentaries were recorded for Red Dwarf X, but this was thankfully only because of time constraints and not because nobody wanted to do it in the first place.

The Monty Python movies all have the most fascinating and entertaining commentary tracks in the history of the DVD. Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian both have the surviving five Pythons Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, John Cleese and Michael Palin on two commentary tracks each while The Meaning of Life has a single track with Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. While the latter suffers a little from the absence of the other Pythons, all commentary tracks are a treasure trove of information and are often sprinkled with the typical Python brand of sarcastical humour, but at the same time are not full of wall-to-wall humour. Instead the comedians and filmmakers explain very thoroughly how their movies were made and offer the most detailed recollections. Although everybody was recorded separately, the editing is mostly so good that the missing interaction between the participants is not noticeable at all. Worth listening to are also the commentaries on the Python’s solo works – Terry Gilliam’s tracks are always brilliant, Terry Jones and Michael Palin have also a lot of fun with Ripping Yarns and John Cleese may be a bit sleepy on some Fawlty Towers tracks, but is utterly brilliant on A Fish Called Wanda.

The Sergio Leone Westerns released by MGM on DVD and Blu-Ray – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and A Fistful of Dynamite have all been equipped with excellent commentaries by the british film historian and Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling. He not only provides a wealth of information about the movies, but also does so in a very relaxed and non-scholary way, although his commentaries must be at least partly scripted. He leaves the impression of having extensively prepared and researched his subject and only seldom leaves questions open. Unfortunately his commentary on The Good, The Bad And The Ugly was only later released on Blu-Ray but never on DVD – this was especially disappointing because Richard Schickel’s track on the 2003 special edition release of the movie is weak compared to Christopher Frayling’s offerings.

The Simpsons & Futurama have maybe the greatest concentration of commentary tracks of all DVD releases, since Matt Groening and his crew of writers, producers, animators and actors have so far recorded audio commentaries for every episode of Futurama and all Simpsons Episodes released on DVD save for season 20. Since the DVDs of both series do not contain any elaborate documentaries at all, the commentaries have always been the star of the extras and seldom disappoint – there may be the occasional quieter track where nobody remembers much and people seem tired, but the majority is simply worth watching every single episode twice.

Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker, meaning David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, sometimes solo, sometimes together with producers and others, are always a complete and utter riot. Especially the commentaries on the Naked Gun Trilogy and Airplane are brilliantly hilarious and while sometimes the real purpose of the commentary gets simply lost in the heat of the moment, these commentaries are wonderful alone for their sheer entertainment value.

There are a whole lot more amazing commentaries out there, but before this article gets too long, I better stop at this point – these are just some of my favourites and maybe I will continue this article sometime with all the unmentioned commentaries.

[Microphone Symbol from the Colourful Icons Part 4 set from Dryicons – and yes, I’ve used this before over on my blog in this article :-).]

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