Vital Art: 5 (or more) Great Film Commentaries

01_Icon_CommentariesThis is a bit of a Vital Art cheat, film commentary being more like an art remora, but with the proliferation of streaming media I think fewer and fewer people are aware of (or have access to) these great audio insights into the business and art of film.

I’m not gonna’ lie, exploring movie (and TV) commentaries is a serious hit-or-miss proposition, many are deadly dull while simultaneously being uninformative, but when you find a great one it’s a treat. My selection criteria for the tracks to discuss is pretty random, no overarching theme, with the exception that they’re all films worth watching (or re-watching ).

Grab some popcorn, kick back and enjoy some great chatter about some great movies!

1. In the Heat of the Night

01_InTheHeatOfTheNightCommentary: Director Norman Jewison, Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and actors Rod Steiger and Lee Grant

Make no mistake, for all its social significance, “In the Heat of the Night” is a kick-ass yarn. This was no accident, the filmmakers were very aware that 1967 audiences might not be down for a movie where a black man (particularly a black man facing down a bunch of racist crackers) was the protagonist – if they were going to get any asses in seats it needed to be an undeniably exciting flick. The commentary gives some great insights into the agenda of the filmmakers (to show not only the venality and folly of racism, but the benefits of the races working together in a world where the tendency was to do anything but), the real world problems they had to face (needing to film in Illinois because Sydney Poitier thought he was going to get hurt/killed if they stayed in Tennessee, where they filmed for four days), and the bad juju engendered when film crews start messing with the local women (hint, it involves a shotgun).

2. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

02_GodfatherCommentary by Francis Ford Coppola

I walked away from these two commentaries feeling like ol’ Francis was my new best friend, his style was so informal and intimate I felt like I not only knew him but his whole family (who all seem pretty cool). For the Godfather, he seemed focused on three basic themes – getting the movie made, all the people who didn’t want him to make the movie and how seemingly every member of his family (including infant daughter Sophia). For the Godfather II he’s a bit more expansive, he’s now the sought after auteur (not the hunted pariah he was on the first film), he gets to call all the shots, and he enjoys the creative freedom. He continuously offers insights into small and large decisions that influenced the creation of this seminal film. Great stuff, this is definitely my number one recommendation.

3. Robocop – 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition

03_RobocopCommentary by director Paul Verhoeven, writer Ed Neumeier and producer Jon Davison.

These guys are awesome, Verhoeven is sooooo European it’s just fun to listen to his insights about making films in the US. Also, he sees things from a truly unique perspective giving his observations real interest. The discussions about the films ultra-violence (the more extreme the less real), trying to film a huge shootout scene where no more than three guns would shoot at a time (the rest would jam and the actors just sort of shake them on screen) and the huge love they have for Phil Tippett’s stop-motion animation are all entertaining and offer a real window into the creation of an interesting and strangely prescient film.

4. Alien and Prometheus

4a_AlienAlien commentary by director Ridley Scott, producer/story Ronald Shusett, John Hurt, writer Dan O’Bannon, actors Sigourney Weaver , Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt , Harry Dean Stanton, editor Terry Rawlings

Prometheus commentary by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott is a God. Sure, he’s totally full of himself, but look at the work – why wouldn’t he be? The Alien track is an amalgam of many different conversations about the film, and they’ve cherry-picked the best for any given segment. Hands down, Scott’s commentary is the most insightful and interesting, but some really great nuggets are lobbed in by the rest of the folks. I strongly recommend turning off the lights and giving Alien a full viewing before delving into the commentary, it still holds up as one of the best cinematic experiences ever.

4b_PrometheusI unapologetically love Prometheus; it’s not in the same league as Alien, but what is? If there’s anything wrong with it, it’s that it’s too ambitious for a two-hour film, things have to happen and happen fast, and some things get shortchanged. But listen to Scott’s commentary, and you’ll feel the deep sense of how much Scott loves this universe, and how long he’s wanted an excuse to return. A little dry, but packed with detail.

5. The Empire Strikes Back

05_EmpireStrikesBackCommentary by director Irvin Kershner George Lucas, sound designer Ben Burtt, special-effects cameraman Dennis Muren, and actress Carrie Fisher

The commentaries for the original Star Wars trilogy aren’t super sexy, George Lucas has a lot of talents but coming up with the snappy patter isn’t one of ‘em. Still, if you’re interested in these popular culture behemoths, it’s not bad listening. That being said, the real reason I’m mentioning the “Empire Strikes Back” is Irvin Kershner. First, he’s just so super-enthusiastic (I believe he was in his late 60’s/early 70’s when this was recorded) he clearly loved working on this project. Second, and this may just be me, but he sounds exactly like Stan Lee, I think they must come from the same generation of New York Jewish creators/hucksters who can find a way to make anything, no matter how trivial sound like splitting the atom. Love this guy!