In the age of streaming, video on demand and rentals, it’s easy to forget that DVDs were, and to an extent still are, a valuable form of media consumption. A DVD shouldn’t just contain the film, it should be a package that’s worth your money – on top of the film (which you would have already seen, given how I highly doubt people would pay ten pounds for a film they don’t know if they like), you should be getting extras like interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers and documentaries. But for me, the cherry on the top of a DVD is the audio commentary. A good audio commentary can improve a viewing experience completely. So in defence of this often neglected aspect of a DVD/Blu Ray, I’m going to look at some great ones.
An audio commentary is essentially when creatives involved with the production – usually the director, writers or cast members – watch the film and talk over it, giving the audience insights into their perspectives and viewpoints. They’re not for everyone, but I love them, especially when I already love the work in question.
For me, the greatest DVD commentaries are the fantastic ones that come with classic series Doctor Who DVDs. All 150+ stories have commentaries with the actors and crew members remembering the good, bad and ugly. I’ve only watched a fraction, mostly the ones with Peter Davison because he is. HILARIOUS. Davison is utterly on point with the problems in his run and 80’s Who as a whole and does not hold back on criticism when he feels like the story is flawed.
The best example of this is Black Orchid, an… OK story, but the commentary is wonderfully sarcastic. Some find him and Janet Fielding too negative, but when the story is good they will complement and discuss it fairly, whilst also making fun of it. Kinda and Snakedance are two such examples, but as much as I love hearing anecdotes from great stories it’s the way less than stellar stuff like Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity (which sees Colin Baker also join in the fun) is torn to pieces that brings me back to Davison’s commentaries. Warriors of the Deep is a fascinating commentary, with the cast and crew perfectly aware of the awful nature of it but also pointing out how it went wrong, such as the director’s complete inexperience with a story of that scale. But my favourite Davison commentary is him, Nicola Bryant and Graeme Harper on The Caves of Androzani, where Harper’s discussions on how he directed it and the state of television directing then and now being a major insight into why he’s considered one of the best Doctor Who directors ever.
Other great commentaries I’ve listened to are Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen looking back on their first story Robot and The Leisure Hive, where script editor Christopher Bidmead criticises director Lovett Bickford’s direction, with Bickford also in the commentary! It’s still interesting though as I find the story very well directed and hearing the behind the scenes was great. Colin Baker is, in contrast to his Doctor, quite mellow and calm with his criticisms even with legendary failure The Twin Dilemma, where he is both honest and fair in what went both right and wrong.
I hardly listened to any new series commentaries, but that’s because there aren’t that many! RTD’s seasons have commentaries for all episodes (I have listened to the Midnight commentary, a very insightful and great discussion on a great episode) but Moffat and Chibnall’s seasons only have select commentary for episodes. Also, unlike the Classic Who DVD’s where the participants can be honest, I have a feeling the commentaries are moderated to stop cast members from being too negative on certain episodes as the show is in production and it’ll be a bit awkward to have cast members mock the show – I doubt we’ll get a Black Orchid style riffing on Fear Her, Kill the Moon or Orphan 55. Maybe in the future we’ll hear the cast’s TRUE thoughts on certain episodes.
The other TV show with a load of commentaries is Futurama, which has an audio track for every single episode and Matt Groening is on basically all of them. I personally find these a bit more mixed, as sometimes there are about six or seven people on the commentary and with only 20 minutes to cover sometimes the episode itself isn’t discussed too much. But all I’ve heard have merit, especially when the writers are discussing the writer’s room, an American writing concept I don’t really understand (how many producers do you need?) or how the insane ideas were conceived or animated.
I first got into commentary tracks during my time at college, where I would frequently borrow DVDs from the library and watch films for the first time with the director’s commentary as subtitles with the film playing at the same time. As many commentators point out, having commentary on a first watch is a bad idea, which I soon learnt. For example, I watched Get Out for the first time on DVD with Jordan Peele’s commentary as text on the bottom. All well and good apart from the fact that he (understandably) discusses the twist before it happens so… whoops.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner commentary is great – we were studying the film as part of the course but due to timing we couldn’t watch the film in class so we were expected to watch the film at home. I’d already seen it so decided to watch with commentary and, say what you will about his films, but Scott is a master director when he puts his mind to it and has something to say about everything, particularly the meticulous set design and stylistic choices.
Rewatching a film you love with commentary is just as rewarding as rewatching it for the first time. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell are so much fun on the Big Trouble in Little China track – they only discuss the film about half the time but the rest of the time they’re discussing each other’s work, the state of films, random action films and it’s an absolute blast. Commentaries are always better when the participants clearly want to be there, and Carpenter and Russell definitely want to be there. But no one puts more work into their commentary tracks than Edgar Wright. My Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy box set is one of my prized possessions, not just because of the films but also the commentaries. Let’s break them down –
Shaun of the Dead has four commentaries – one with Wright and Simon Pegg as the writers/director commentary, then one with the main cast, then one with Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton, and finally one with some of the zombie extras. I’ve only listened to the first one with Wright and Pegg (and it’s GLORIOUS), but the fact that there are so many is proof that this is a guy who cares about giving someone their money’s worth on a DVD.
Hot Fuzz has FIVE tracks – the Wright/Pegg one, one with the Sanford police actors, one with the Neighbourhood Watch actors, one with two Wells police officers who served as consultants and one with Wright and Quentin Tarantino. I haven’t heard any of these yet but look forward to doing so.
The World’s End was, naturally, the first commentary I listened to when I got the set. There are three – the Wright/Pegg double act, which was, of course, fantastic. These two are a script writing team made in heaven and have such a clear understanding and passion of their own work and manage to be intelligent and discuss many different aspects of the film without losing the carefree vibe of a casual commentary track. The other two are a cast commentary and one with Wright and cinematographer Bill Pope that I really should listen to as I love Pope’s work with Wright, Sam Raimi and the Wachowskis. Edgar Wright also has multiple commentary tracks on Scott Pilgrim (which I have on DVD so should probably watch) and Baby Driver (which I do not, yet) but I greatly admire his dedication to the commentary track as they really are a valuable insight into a film’s background.
Sadly, many DVDs now do not have commentary tracks. But the Blu Rays do. My Marvel Blu Rays have commentaries (including Endgame, which I look forward to rewatching with commentary immensely) and now we have a Blu Ray player we can now get more obscure releases with more commentaries and extras. If you’re paying more, surely you should get a good set of extras? Many distributors seem to think extras don’t matter, certainly not commentaries – “what’s the point? Surely people just want to watch the film?”. But no. Many people value the special features and if I just wanted to just watch the film I would simply rent it. I wish streaming services would offer the commentary track as a language option as I really love listening to them if the participants are interesting, which they usually are.
No real conclusion here, just appreciating commentary tracks and the people and companies that put extra effort into them.