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Why the DVD commentary is a beautiful art form that needs to be preserved

Here are some classics of the genre

Why the DVD commentary is a beautiful art form that needs to be preserved
19 January 2018

Nobody misses the physical side of DVDs and the outrageous effort they demanded, like having to actually stand up from the sofa and walk to the DVD player to change films. That seems like lunacy, frankly, user-unfriendly lunacy that borders on abusive. But the extra stuff on them, the bells and whistles, deleted scenes and making-ofs and trailers and everything, they were great. You’d get more of a film you loved, and could stay on the sofa that bit longer.

(Like, DVDs still exist, obviously, but nobody buys them, do they? Because why would you, in an age of multiplatform streaming and endless variety, where you can have access to thousands of films for seven quid a month, choose to pay £12.99 for one film that might take as much as two whole days to get to your house? We don’t live in the medieval times.)

Commentaries are/were the best thing about DVDs, providing sometimes fascinating, sometimes hilarious (and, in the interests of fairness, sometimes incredibly tedious) insights into every element of filmmaking. They’ve been replaced in a way by endless analysis and thinkpieces in the wake of a film coming out, and recaps and discussion shows (The Talking Dead etc.) after TV episodes, but they’re not the same. Reading a great behind-the-scenes anecdote about the making of a film is great, but nothing brings out minutiae like a filmmaker or actor sitting down and watching the film, remembering things, pointing out details and occasionally full-on slagging people off. 

They’re not for everyone - Entertainment Weekly once described the idea as “mountains of filler”, and a surprising amount of commentaries question why anyone would be listening - but if you’re interested in writing, acting, directing or just the specifics of the film in question, they’re brilliant. Steven Soderbergh described them as “better than any film school”. But then, for every one that’s super useful and educational, there’s one that’s just hella stupid and really good fun. They might even be better.

But, unless you want to pay money for an actual disc, which obviously nobody does, they’re hard to get hold of. It’s a massive crying shame - this bunch of commentaries alone offer definitive proof that they’re excellent.

  1. 1.'Cannibal! The Musical'

    Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s first film, made on a micro-budget when they were in college, is a ridiculous musical based extremely loosely on the true story of Alferd (not Alfred, Alferd) Packer, a prospector who ended up eating his colleagues in 1874. For the commentary, they get incredibly drunk with a few other cast members, endlessly criticising the film, openly badmouthing Parker’s ex-girlfriend and drunkenly cackling at elderly cast members who have since died. 

  2. 2.'Total Recall'

    Some commentaries are great because they provide fascinating insight into the making of a film. The commentary for Total Recall is not one of those. Arnold Schwarzenegger goes for a “say what you see” approach to the film, narrating what happens on screen as though describing it over the phone to a mate. He makes no separation between himself and his character, Douglas Quaid, delightedly narrating the action in first-person. It’s amazing.

  3. 3.'This is Spinal Tap'

    Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer provide an in-character commentary as Nigel Tufnel, David St Hubbins and Derek Smalls. Continually questioning the choices of the film’s ‘director’, Marty DiBergi and defending themselves as being seriously misrepresented by the choices made (“We got lost on the way to the stage less than a third of the time, and that’s what he includes”, it results in an experience that isn’t far off being a whole new Spinal Tap film.

  4. 4.'The Goonies'

    Reuniting the whole key cast with director Richard Donner, and occasionally switching to a picture-in-picture format, the Goonies commentary not only provides loads of tidbits about the making of the film (anecdotes about vomiting, things like that), it shows the difference in significance the movie has for different people involved, depending on how their careers went. Donner barely remembers it, while Jeff ‘Chunk’ Cohen, who is now a lawyer, and spent his college years completely owning his childhood role (including a successful ‘Vote Chun’ student election campaign), knows it inside-out.

  5. 5.'Tropic Thunder'

    Taking a gag about Robert Downey Jr.’s Tropic Thunder character, actor Kirk Lazarus, staying in character until the DVD commentary is recorded and running with it, Downey Jr. spends the whole DVD commentary being Kirk Lazarus, in turn being Lincoln Osiris). The commitment is truly impressive, even when shouting at Jack Black (who turns up late for the commentary recording session and gets a burger delivered halfway through it).

  6. 6.'Conan The Barbarian'

    It doesn’t seem out of the question that Arnold Schwarzenegger and director John Milius had a few drinks before the recording of the Conan commentary. Then a big bag of weed. Schwarzenegger makes jokes about Milius’ failed marriage and tax issues, gets overexcited every time his character has sex and makes slanderous remarks about cameramen pleasuring themselves on set.

  7. 7.'Dog Soldiers'

    Director Neil Marshall, director of photography Sam McCurdy, co-producer Keith Bell, and actors Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, and Liam Cunningham provide a mickey-taking, hilarious and tidbit-filled soundtrack throughout the whole film, with almost no duds or silence, taking particular care to take the piss out of McKidd for a massive flinch he does in one scene. Less like being in a film and more like being in a pub.

  8. 8.'Fight Club'

    David Fincher is a huge fan of the audio commentary, and did something like five different commentaries for Seven. The Fight Club one featuring him, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton is a fascinating look at a film that very possibly doesn’t hold up but seemed important at the time - the passion they all have for the project is clear, as is the amount of input the actors had on their characters. Sometimes you’ll hear commentaries where actors have only seen the completed film once or twice, so it’s nice to hear one where they know it inside-out.

  9. 9.'Talladega Nights'

    There are two commentaries on Talladega Nights. One is just full of lies, as director Adam McKay talks about the half-billion dollar budget and animatronic child actors, while the other supposedly takes place 25 years after the making of the film, and involves cast and crew reminiscing about the impact it had in the years up to 2031 - it turns out John C Reilly has become the leader of a militia in the interim. 

  10. 10.'Blood Simple'

    The Coen brothers wrote a fake commentary for their 1984 debut when it was issued on DVD, filled with banal observations (“There is a stationary car on screen”) and total nonsense (like a claim that one scene was shot upside down). It’s deliberately a struggle to get through, and not a lot of fun, but the commitment is at least admirable.

  11. 11.'Wet Hot American Summer'

    There’s a commentary that is just farts. HOW DOES EVERY FILM NOT HAVE THAT?