On Facebook, a friend of mine asked how often I listen to commentary tracks. Instead of clogging up her other post discussion (which involved the music of How To Train Your Dragon by john Powell, which I LLOVE), I decided to write a post.
In general, I would say that I listen to about half of the commentary tracks that I have on disc. Yes, I watch a lot of movies and have a lot of discs, but I still find time to have them going in the background quite a bit.
There are several different types of commentary tracks and each one can have its merits. But, here is how I gauge what I llisten to:
Who is on the track? If there is someone of whom I am a huge fan of their work, I will listen to the track, no matter what, with one exception. I love the work of Tim Burton, but he cannot do commentary tracks alone. If he has someone with him, he is better, but alone, he gives amazing nuggets like this actual quote from the Sleepy Hollow Commentary track: "In this scene, I decided to have Johnny wear black." WoW!
I have listened to tracks by sound designers like Ben Burtt who explains that he made this sound by dropping strawberry Jello through fishnet stockings into kitty litter while he was standing exactly 7 1/2 feet up. I love geeks no matter what department they are in!
Danny Elfman on the Pee Wees Big Adventure track states that one particular piece that he had written for a harmonica was tested by many different professionals and told that it was too fast, too many notes and could not be done. Then, a guy came in and did it in one take. Great stuff! Elfman is usually good for the first hour of his tracks, but he usually runs out of things to say near the end.
Ben Affleck- say what you will about the guy, but he is hysterical! His commentary tracks on Pearl harbor, Armageddon, and Mallrats are some of the funniest things that I have ever heard and proves that he does not take himself too seriously.
Kevin Smith- the Mallrats comentary is one of the best around since it is a party atmosphere and is very funny all the way through. In fact, one of the jokes on the track makes it into the Jay and Silent bob Strike Back feature film. Kevin usually has a bunch of different commetaries on his films- one is usually more technical where he is very honest about filmmaking, and the other is like a fun party track.
Weird Al Yankovic does a great track on UHF where he gives actual addresses of the locations used and tells a lot of funny stories as well as how difficult is was to get the film made.
John carpenter and Kurt Russell- these guys have no delusions as to what it is they do for a living. Their Big trouble in Little China commentary is a lot like watching it with your best buds who in the middle of the film take a 3 or 4 minute detour into talking about their kids playing hockey.
Joel Schumacher, on the track for Batman & Robin, actually apologizes for the film he made explaining that the script was written around toys that had already been made to sell that Christmas.
If I know that there is a lot of behind the scenes trouble in making the film, I will listen and see how much is brought up of the troubles. Sometimes, the speakers stay far away from discussing it and other times it will devolve into mudslinging. You ever wonder why those disclaimers are there before the movie begins/ This is the example of why it is there.
Writers tracks- If the main actors or director are not on the track, many times I will just "sample it" and see if the speakers are interesting. If they are, I will listen to it from the beginning. but, if the writer is on there, I will usually listen and try to gain as much as I can when they discuss how they make their decisions on where the plot and characters go. This can be especially intriguin if its an adaptation and they discuss why they left in what they did and took out what they did.
It has happened where I have lost a llot of respect for certain people, or at least been made to remember that they are just human as well and not to be held up as a paragon of intelligence. Jennifer Connelly is pretty to look at but quite a ditz when it comes to discussing films, her craft, and even just random storytelling. Vanessa Hudgens, on the Bandslam commentary, reminded me that she was only 19 or so when she made the film. It was a lot of giggling and "he's so cute" type comments. While I can't say I have ever been a fan of Michael Bay as a person, his tracks are fascinating, but just go to prove that he is a pretentious dick. On Armageddon, he starts out by saying, "Making a movie is like a war." and continues to discuss how important his job is and how no one can do what he can do. I listen to Michael Bay's tracks and just giggle all the way through with the ridiculous things he says.
Sometimes I watch the commentary ttracks of films that are complete misfires or just dont quite add up and you hear the makers discuss what they wanted to make and what they thought thy made and give their good intentions and they can make you almost want to like the film just for the good intentions involved.
But, if the film touched me on any level and especially if it is one of my top films of the year, I will listen to it just for the magical quality that creative people have in discussing how they brought their work to the screen.
On the weekend that How to Train Your Dragon came out on BluRay, I bought it that morning and watched it all weekend. My wife did not see it in the theaters, so I forced her to sit down and watch it with me (forced because she doesn't really like animation). She loved it and was crying at the end. I then watched it 3 more times (just the film) and did all of the extras that were included on the disc- the featurettes, the commentaries, the whole thing. I made it a How to Train Your Dragon weekend. On the commentary track, the directors talk about how the "learning to trust each other" scene grew from a planned one minute scene to almost 5 because they knew that the whole film hinged on that scene and if it didnt work, the whole film would not work. They also discussed that, originally, Hiccup was alone in his room when he woke up at the end and discovered he lost a leg. It was Steven Spielberg, who saw the first cut at Dreamworks SKG, who told them that Toothless needed to be there and to help his friend out. Of course, Spielberg turned out to be right.
How to Train Your Dragon was a special film to me.
It was the last film that I saw with my dad in the theaters. We saw it as I was driving him back home from San Antonio to Hurricane Utah when he was diagnosed with cancer. He died 11 weeks later.
Commentary tracks can be like film school in a box, a drunken good time while you are still sober, a memory of what makes a film so special to you, an apology, an affirmation, or just a peek behind the curtain at the magic that can come out of creative people.