I’ve been really interested in DVD audio commentaries lately after listening to Peter Hyams’ for Running Scared and John Hughes’ for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (the only time he ever commentated on his own work.) I absolutely love listening to these, though I’m the only one I know who does. I appreciate being spoken to by the creative forces behind my favorite works of art so that I can understand what they were trying to express. They help point out the nuances I missed, as well as share behind the scenes anecdotes from the production which are often just as interesting as the plot itself. It’s a great way for a film buff to appreciate all the minutia that goes into making such a large project come together.
Let me provide a concrete example of what I’m talking about. I love the commentary track for Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. My fave moment from any commentary track is during the flashback scene when they’re talking about how they got the idea to kill off Harley Quinn. And apparently Paul Dini started crying and outright refused to let them go through with it. They described how all the rest of the writers had to convince him that the story would be better for it. And he just kept saying “I’m not gonna do it, I’m not gonna kill Harley!” (He was eventually overruled.) I love that moment because it just speaks to how personal characters are to the people who create them. It’s really touching sometimes reading about how invested creators can get in their work. I’ve talked about Mitchell Kriegman and Clarissa Darling before in the same vein; if you’ve ever seen interviews, it’s clear he cares about her almost as if she were a real person.
Roger Ebert’s for Citizen Kane is especially phenomenal; I mean, it’s basically the world’s most influential authority on film analyzing at length the most influential film ever made. It really adds a whole other layer of appreciation to Kane and the medium itself, like a professor giving an amazing lecture on a subject they’re passionate about. A few years ago, I’d been trying to find the other commentary Ebert did before losing his voice, Casablanca. In the process, I finally discovered a website that offers downloads to various commentary tracks from hundreds of movies. Unfortunately, this site has recently gone down, but I managed to save a few dozen from my favorite films first.
ASIDE: While I’m on the subject of Ebert, I wish Siskel had lived long enough to record his own commentary tracks as well. I’d love to hear his take on his own fave film, Saturday Night Fever.
RedLetterMedia and a few other YouTube personalities have also recorded commentary tracks for pop films like Star Wars. I find these to be interesting for different reasons–it’s not a professor’s in-depth dissection of a work, or a primary account of the production, but rather a fun experience among friends. You’re listening to a bunch of buddies share their genuine reactions to a film they love, maybe riffing on the sillier parts, as if you were there with them. For the nights when you can’t get a group of people together, or as background noise while working from home, or doing household chores, it’s the next best thing. Some professional commentary tracks that were officially released on DVD have this same dynamic, including the in-character commentary on Tropic Thunder.
Director’s/Historian’s/Dedicated fan’s commentaries are definitely the best special features on DVD/Blu-Ray when done well. I don’t know why they aren’t sold separately from the films online too, and why they seem to have been relegated as a purely a physical media thing, to be swept aside as streaming takes over. I have a lot of movies on DVD and VHS which have no commentary that I’d love to buy them for, and would gladly shell out say $2 to $5 bucks to do so. Recording a good commentary is an art form in itself, but one that’s slowly dying out along with physical media, and deserves more appreciation than it currently gets. I feel as though the film buffs like myself ought to preserve these as much as possible. That way in the future, (and it will happen sooner than we think) when physical media has stopped being produced, and the copies in existence are rare, there will at least be an archive somewhere online housing as many commentary tracks as possible.
Luckily I found another source with a good deal of commentaries available for download. If I find any others, I will edit and pass them along.