The Unbearable Sadness of the Audio Commentary Track

The first “audio commentary track” was recorded for the Criterion laserdisc of King Kong, released in December 1989.

“Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” Criterion’s track began. “I’m Ronald Haver.” (The late Haver was a film historian and director of film programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) “I’m here to do something which we feel is rather unique,” he continued. “I’m going to take you on a lecture tour of King Kong as you watch the film. The laserdisc technology offers us this opportunity and we feel it’s rather unique — the ability to switch back and forth between the soundtrack and this lecture track.”

And it’s been downhill ever since.

Make no mistake: Nearly all commentary tracks contain something of value: an anecdote, a technical or critical insight, a moment of delicious unfiltered bitchiness. Many “yak tracks” are great — works of critical art unto themselves. The laserdisc was a specialty item. No one was watching too closely. But its successor, the DVD, was a near-instant sensation that transformed the home-video market — and its mass adoption led to the watering-down of the commentary track as an unfiltered information source.

The decline of the commentary track is probably a relief to dedicated home-video reviewers, who otherwise would have to give a movie a “close read” at least twice. But for film students, interested listeners, and scholars, the situation is a sad disaster. What follows is my personal and quirky journey through commentary tracks over the years. I lament the loss of quality, but here are some that have struck me as signposts along the way of that decline.

It’s easy to forget in these media-choked times what a revelation the 1997 debut of the DVD was for cinephiles: an affordable version of the niche-market laserdisc, only with better picture and sound quality and easier navigation. The extra material the consumer received for just $29.95 — or, later, $19.95, and descending downward — was nothing short of astounding. Each film now potentially came with its own packaged backstory, marketing history and critical defense, in the form of a commentary track and extras.

But the main attraction remained the commentary track, with a director, star and/or academic holding forth while the digital bits collided. Ideally it enhanced one’s appreciation and understanding of the film. Wes Anderson has called the Criterion Collection his film school.

There are some great commentary tracks, starting with the special edition of Fight Club. That two-disc set had no fewer than four commentary tracks: one with director David Fincher, another with stars Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham-Carter, and a pretentious-sounding Edward Norton; an edited track with key members of the production crew (cinematographer, costume and production design, and special effects); and novelist Chuck Palahniuk teaming up with the credited screenwriter James Uhls, who some people thought didn’t exist. (Well, I wasn’t sure, anyway.)

Consider as well the excellent edited audio montage attached to the disc of The Silence of the Lambs, with director Jonathan Demme, actors Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, screenwriter Ted Tally, and even the FBI agent John Douglas, who inspired the psycho-profiler character in fiction. Foster is especially warm about the film, in a way that suggests why she later chose not to participate in Ridley Scott’s sequel.

Another triumphant commentary track features the illuminating intelligence of film scholar Michael Jeck on the Criterion edition of The Seven Samurai. Jeck explains, for example, how a Japanese viewer would understand some of the intricacies of social class and the sartorial emblems that symbolized them within the film, as well as how Japanese audiences would react to certain actors in unusual roles. The special-edition DVD also had a second commentary track with Japanese film specialists Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, the late Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen — an impressive roundup of big-screen brainiacs.

And the behind-the-scenes anecdotes could be priceless. On the Seven Days in May disc, for example, John Frankenheimer told a complicated but hilarious story about how he painted himself into a situation — he’d suddenly found he had a film called Seven Days in May that had the wrong number of days in it — and how he got out of it.

Also worthy of mention is the Usual Suspects DVD yak track, which is among the early greats. So few fucks given. And they reveal so many continuity errors. And they call Peter Greene “terrifying.” It’s hilarious.

Another great one is the Spartacus disc, which republishes the 1992 laserdisc commentary. As Alexandra DuPont put it in this DVDJournal review:

Seldom in the brief history of commentary tracks has a more disparate, articulate, or catty group been assembled…. It features great men unafraid to dish gossip and contradict each other and lay bare the flaws and hard work found in every scene of Spartacus. Ustinov’s the funniest and best-spoken, the Noel Coward of the piece: You can almost hear his eyebrow arch as he tallies the rivalries, recounts the “harmonious tennis match” between himself and Laughton, makes fun of the Alex North’s “indiscriminately and fulsomely” overused score…. And Howard Fast. Oh, my. Fired as screenwriter after an abortive attempt at adapting his own Spartacus novel, Fast is hauled out of mothballs to settle the score — making for some truly riveting, cringe-inducing commentary chatter.

As DVDs became popular, however, supplementary material started to come at a premium. Retail prices fell. The average disc became a lowbrow item that didn’t want to waste time and money on a complicated lagniappe for elite consumers.

Commentary tracks were hit hard by this laziness. In a rush to add “extras,” some of what was added was junk. Some commentary tracks deteriorated into mere recounting of what the viewer was already seeing onscreen (Peter Bogdanovich was the unfortunate master of this literalist play-by-play approach). Others devolved into polite happy-chat between mutually admiring actors, like anchors on an afternoon TV news break.

In fact, commentary tracks are saddest when they are trying to be happy.

Take The Sweetest Thing. This is the Cameron Diaz vehicle from 2002 co-staring Christina Applegate and Selma Blair as a trio of friends who share every emotional trauma. Directed by Roger Kumble, who ended up in television soon thereafter (Pretty Little Liars, Suits), the film is rife with anatomic gross-out jokes, weakly capitalizing on Diaz’s There’s Something About Mary, while also anticipating “female bro” comedies such as Bridesmaids. Mostly The Sweetest Thing proved that women-led “hangover” movies could be just as vulgar and lame as their male counterparts’.

The studio (presumably) was so excited by this venture that they issued two competing DVDs of the movie — one more “blue” than the other and featuring the commentary by the three stars. This “Unrated” edition had over two dozen listed supplements, including a commentary track clearly recorded between the striking of the final print and its release to theaters. The actresses (and Kumble) are happy and optimistic about the film, even taking hits of helium from time to time to underscore their frivolity. But the listener, getting the disc some several months after the film’s big screen release, knows that the film took in only $24 million at the box-office over a $42 million budget. This left the stars laughing on a tree limb that was being cut off at the joint.

Yet commentary tracks are so valuable that even when they are sad, they still have the potential to be informative and indirectly educational. They’re a bit like film noir that way.

Take, for example, the mishap on the disc of Days of Wine and Roses. The accompanying talk by director Blake Edwards is one of the worst audio commentary tracks ever. And there is so little of it! Edwards simply stops talking for long stretches. Though he’d done at least one earlier track (for Victor/Victoria), he begins his accompaniment by admitting that he doesn’t understand how audio tracks work. Why would people endure the movie with him gabbing in the background? There is a long pause, after which Edwards comes back to the mike to reveal that a technician had just explained how audio tracks work — namely, that the listener has the option of hearing the track after a screening of a movie rather than being stuck with it. This out-of-touch moment is quickly followed by Edwards expressing shock that Days is in black-and-white; apparently he hadn’t seen it since 1962. Why didn’t Edwards watch the film the night before, or do some research? And why didn’t the technician just stop this mess of a yak and start over again? The disc is priceless because of this chaos.

Another all-time-disaster in my experience — but a fascinating one — is Tycus, a straight-to-video film from 1999 about a comet on a path of destruction with Earth. Directed by actor-turned-helmer John Putch, the film features Dennis Hopper as a billionaire who constructs an underground city to save a few high-paying human beings.

On the disc’s commentary, Putch speaks with almost frightening, potentially career-destroying honesty about how hard it was to work with Hopper, crew issues, and the production’s lack of money, which resulted in some shots being used repeatedly (particularly one of a woman in white leading an outdoor class with a bunch of tykes) as well as Putch padding the film with stock footage from films including Air America, Dante’s Peak, and even Goldeneye. Throughout his discourse, Putch sounds shell-shocked, as if he’d stepped into a game whose rules he was never told.

Putch survived this debacle and went on to make 12 more feature films, including straight-to-video sequels to American Pie and Smokin’ Aces, and also to work fruitfully in television, mostly in sitcoms (Scrubs, Ugly Betty, Blackish) but also on part two of the Fountainhead adaptation. But his disconsolate Tycus commentary track remains one for the ages, despite being painful to get through.

If only all tracks were this honest. These days they’ve become far too polite and safe.

The decline of the commentary track may be a byproduct of the dominance of streaming Netflix and its ilk, which have tons of movies but have made little effort to offer separate audio tracks. Thus there’s no incentive to make commentaries, which, after all, were part of a package designed to lure people into buying a physical disc.

Is there any hope for the commentary track? Even Criterion — a juggernaut that once spared no expense in creating supplement-rich discs — has backed off from the prestige yak track in recent years. Perhaps the only hope for this feature lies with the gifted amateurs who record their own “fan commentary tracks” and post them online to be cued up with a trackless disc, or the comedic remnants of Mystery Science Theater 3000, who recreate the humor of the show in audio tracks called Rifftrax.

A truly great commentary track requires a lot of prep, research, and wit, and it can be great if someone involved in the film turns up willing to spill the beans. So the chances are slim. And that’s sad.

D.K. Holm talks over the movies in Portland. 

Image credit: Nate Koehler