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How to Listen: Nirvana

How to Listen: Nirvana

How to Listen: Nirvana

Nevermind

In Utero

Qobuz Hi-Res 24-bit/96kHz

 

Nirvana might be one of the last bands you’d think about when the subject of audiophile recordings comes up. Yet, their two landmark albums—1991’s Nevermind and 1993’s In Utero—are admirable examples of how to record and produce rock records.

 

Nirvana was of course one of the key bands that brought grunge to a mainstream audience in the early 1990s. Nevermind featured “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” perhaps the single song that defines the grunge era, along with the irresistible earworm 

“Come As You Are.” In Utero was the worthy followup and featured the hits “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”

 

Want to see if your system can play loud and rock? You’ll know after playing these records, assuming you don’t blow a speaker in the process. These typhoon-intensity sonic assaults “want” to be played at volume. (Well, you really don’t have to—the recordings sound fine at neighbor-friendly levels, but if you want to hear what the band and producers Butch Vig and Steve Albini really had in mind you have to let them rip.)

 

Nevermind was produced by Vig and In Utero by Albini, two very different individuals, and yet, having listened to them back to back, I was struck by how similar the albums sound. Maybe it’s because after Albini sent In Utero in to the record company, the label thought it was too raw, and the band and another producer, Scott Litt, had to go back and make changes (Albini refused)—undoubtedly with Nevermind casting a very large shadow. That said, overall Nevermind is brighter and more open, In Utero darker and sludgier.

 

If you think grunge music equals sloppy playing, the first thing you’ll be struck by on both albums is just how tight they are. This isn’t the sound of three guys playing off the cuff—these are multi-layered, carefully crafted productions, with numerous overlaid guitars. I have far more respect for singer/guitarist/main songwriter Kurt Cobain as a musician now that I’ve revisited these records. His playing is rhythmically exact, in tune, and roaring, thanks to his use of distortion and chorus pedals. His vocals are frequently multitracked, typically with a main vocal front and center and background parts off to the sides. Dave Grohl’s drumming has tremendous impact and presence.

 

Cobain favored distorted power chords and jarring riffs and sang in a vocal-cord-ripping style alternating with more intimate singing. (In interviews, he acknowledged that Nirvana’s “loud-soft-loud” style was influenced by the Pixies, who earlier had codified this approach.) Grohl played drums with masterful technical prowess and sang background vocals and Krist Novoselic laid down a tight, in-the-pocket bass groove.

 

On a good system, the kick drum should pound and wallop 

and the snare should drive the band like a whip driving a horse. Songs like “Very Ape” (Nevermind) show that these guys were a killer band, and you should feel the rhythmic drive and physical presence of the music. (Although Nirvana was never one of my favorites—IMHO, the songwriting is uneven—tracks like this make me wish I’d seen them live.)

 

If there’s one “How to Listen” takeaway from these records, it’s that beyond what’s been mentioned already, what you should listen for are the studio effects and how they’re applied, and how well your system reveals them.

These aren’t recordings where the sounds of the vocals and instruments are set at the beginning of the sessions and then left alone. Everything’s tweaked with every track. Some things to listen for:

 

The equalization, or “EQ,” of each instrument and vocal track—the proportion of bass, midrange, and high frequencies—can be altered, and Vig and Albini use this to deliberate artistic effect. For example, the bass in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rumbly and indistinct, whereas on “In Bloom,” the higher harmonics (overtones) of the bass are clearly heard. EQ is used on the drums to make the bass drum “kick” and emphasize the sound of the beater hitting the head, and on the snare to fatten it up or make it leaner, like a snapping branch.

How to Listen: Nirvana

Cobain’s voice is sometimes goosed with some added upper midrange (though this could be the choice of mics). On “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the guitars have a piercing upper-midrange and treble. Your ears will hurt when it’s played loud. By contrast, the guitars on “Come As You Are” have a mellower top end. Both albums have powerful bass with a lot of weight, and a palpable midrange.

How to Listen: Nirvana

Compression is used not only to even out the differences in volume between loud and soft sounds, but to give instruments like drums and bass added presence. Compression is all over the drums, to give them extra punch. Listen to the tom toms carefully. That isn’t the sound of naked drums in a room—they’re compressed to make them “sit” more evenly in the mix. Once you know to listen for this, it’s obvious.

 

Both albums avoid the excessive use of reverb and delay—in fact, the albums are on the “dry” side, which serves the music well. No cavernous 1980s Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drums here. The soundspaces of Nevermind and In Utero aren’t wide and deep and beyond the edges of the speakers; they’re more like a monolithic wall of thundering and snarling sound. There’s little left-right placement of 

instruments or even a sense that you’re listening in stereo except for some occasional panning of Cobain’s guitars, mostly during solos.

 

The mixes on both albums aren’t all that transparent. You won’t be listening for little tinkly bells or Cobain breathing. On Nevermind’s “Polly,” Cobain strums an acoustic guitar. In Utero’s “Dumb” features a cello. But both instruments sound flat and low-fi. If they don’t seem fleshed out, it’s not your system, it’s the fact that those subtleties aren’t there. Well, these aren’t subtle records and I’m pretty sure the last thing on VIg’s and Albini’s minds was whether audiophiles would be able to count the snares on Grohl’s snare drum or tell whether Cobain had put new strings on. This is rock and roll, not Diana Krall!

 

And I did mention that these records ask to be played loud. I had to try this: For my final listening, I played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through our band’s PA speakers (currently residing in my basement). I blasted the song at a hellacious volume, over 102dB (I measured). Holy mother of gawd! What a glorious brain-frying racket! It sounded titanic! Certainly not audiophile-“correct,” but the freight-train decibel level blew all such cork-sniffer rationality aside.

 

I’d forgotten that rock and roll and volume not only go hand in hand, but are sometimes one and the same. Nirvana, Vig, and Albini didn’t.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a
professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Greyhound

Greyhound

Apple TV+ snatched up Tom Hanks’ latest, Greyhound, as an exclusive for its relatively new streaming service after the film was moved from its original March 22 theatrical release date to May 8 and then to June 12. Apple has been looking for that “killer app” original programming to bolster and broaden its streaming offerings, and this Sony Pictures-produced World War II thriller is a strong choice. And at an estimated budget of $50.3 million, this is one of the biggest films to get a direct-to-streaming release thus far (unless you count the $75 million Disney paid for the worldwide rights to Hamilton).

Hanks is no stranger to starring in war films (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Forrest Gump) or movies where water plays an integral role (Cast Away, Captain Phillips, Sully), and here he combines the two, playing Ernest Krause, a captain in the U.S. Navy commanding a World War II-era Fletcher-class destroyer (call sign “Greyhound”) on his first mission, leading a convoy of 37 Allied ships crossing the Atlantic loaded with soldiers and supplies for the front lines.

 

P.T. Barnum is credited with saying, “Always leave them wanting more,” and that is what I thought when Greyhound’s end credits started rolling. The film’s actual run time (less credits) is a brisk 81 minutes, making it feel a bit more like an episode in a series than a standalone feature film. Fortunately, it uses nearly each of those minutes to full potential, zipping by with a very tight story that contains virtually no fat.

GREYHOUND AT A GLANCE

This movie isn’t big on character development, but it does give you a great sense of what it was like to command a ship under siege by U-boats during World War II. 

 

PICTURE     

HDR helps enhance the details in the film’s predominantly grey color palette while making it more vivid.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos mix helps capture the sense of a ship under attack, with sound waves from depth-charge explosions pressurizing your room and hitting you in the chest.

The movie begins by informing us of a treacherous area of the Atlantic beyond the range of Allied air cover known as the “Black Pit,” where German submarines—U-boats—hunt Allied convoys in lethal groups known as a “Wolfpack.” The multi-day crossing during the Battle of the Atlantic saw over 3,500 ships carrying millions of tons of cargo sunk, with over 72,000 souls lost. While the story is based on actual events, Greyhound is not a true story. Hanks actually penned the screenplay—his first feature-film writing credit since That Thing You Do! in 1996—based on C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd.

 

What is lost is any sort of character development. We learn nothing about anyone, and just get bits and pieces of information about Krause, who appears religious (he makes a point of praying several times) and whose sole motivation is to get as much of the convoy safely across the Atlantic as possible.

 

The one bit of backstory we do get before Krause ships off is that he wants to propose to his girlfriend Evelyn (Elisabeth Shue) on a beach, but that relationship—or any other—is never developed. In retrospect, this opening scene, in which Evelyn and Krause exchange Christmas presents, seems to be in the film solely as an opportunity for Krause to explain that he has finally been given command of his first destroyer before he heads off to training and then into active duty.

 

Besides that brief scene, the film maintains a laser focus on the Greyhound, and features Hanks in nearly every shot. We see the other ships in the convoy, but they are usually shown in the distance either via Krause’s view through binoculars or from high aerial shots. Krause communicates with other ships over the radios, but we never see crew aboard any other ships. We see the periscope, decks, and conning of the Wolfpack subs that crest and slice through the waters like a hunting shark’s fin—and even hear the “Grey Wolf” sub taunting Krause and the Greyhound over the radio—but the enemy remains faceless.

 

The short running time and focusing nearly entirely on Krause allows you to fully appreciate the absolute weight of command as he is forced to make virtually every decision, skipping meals and sleep during the treacherous crossing, and making life-and-death choices—either for himself or others in the convoy—nearly every minute. In some ways, the tightness and claustrophobic nature of many of the interiors aboard the Greyhound are reminiscent of a submarine film, but here we see the flip side of the coin, hunting the unseen sub, and launching patterns of depth charges and watching them explode the surface of the water instead of being inside the sub as they explode all around.

 

The film delivers an accurate portrayal of operations aboard a warship, with lots of orders being given then repeated back, multiple announcements of bearings and headings, and lots of navigation change orders in the form of left/right full/hard/standard rudder.

 

The CGI effects and attention to detail are impressive throughout, and short of an opening shot where a circling plane just looked a tad off, nothing pulls you out of the film.

 

Filmed in DXL Raw at 8K resolution, Greyhound is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and the image quality is sharp and detailed throughout. Closeups reveal tons of detail, whether the pores in actors’ faces, the pebbled texture on helmets, the thick, heavy wool of a peacoat, or the detail on the ship’s instrumentation.

 

Viewers with capable displays can enjoy a Dolby Vision presentation; however, I was limited to HDR10. While much of the film is grey and gloomy—the ships, the ocean, the skies, even the drab olive greens of the sailors’ uniforms—there are still plenty of benefits from the added dynamic range, which generally creates more depth and realism. Whether it is bright light streaming into darkened interiors through port holes, pops of light from the ship’s instruments or interior lighting, emergency distress flares piercing the black night sky, or the bright red flames rolling out of ships on fire, images have plenty of punch when called for.

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos mix is fairly active with lots of atmospheric sounds to place you in the scene and aboard the ship. Whether inside the ship or on the deck, you hear waves crashing, the creaks and groans of the ship, the howl of the wind, the pings from the sonar room, PA announcements echoing through the overhead speakers, and off-camera voices.

 

Your subwoofer is also called on frequently to deliver some tactile bass, whether from waves rolling through the room, splashing up high on the front wall and overhead, and then crashing with bassy authority, or the ship’s engines thrumming with appropriate weight, or the deck guns engaging U-boats with a boom that you’ll feel in your seat. The biggest bass moments come from the explosion of depth charges, which will cause a good subwoofer to pressurize the air in the room and let you feel it in your chest.

 

Dialogue is mostly clear and intelligible—however, there are some moments where it’s a tad muffled, but this is usually coming from or in the sonar room with much going on.

 

Greyhound does not require much of a commitment in the way of time, but will definitely be enjoyable for those who like Hanks and/or WWII dramas, and it is streaming now for free on Apple TV+ (subscription required).

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

What’s So Great About Color?

A few days ago, we ran Dennis Burger’s interview with Ray Harryhausen, where the justly revered special-effects genius talked about how happy he was with the colorized version of his 20 Million Miles to Earth. I know this is a touchy subject I can’t possibly begin to do justice to in the space allotted here, but colorization is bad—it has always been bad, and always will be. The fact that we’ve gotten better at it—like getting better at covering your tracks after a robbery—only compounds the crime.

 

There are so many ways to approach this, but let’s start with this: Why do we need everything to be in color? Why did the idea take root that black & white is somehow inferior? Are Dürer’s or Doré’s engravings or Ernst’s collages in any way inferior to their work in color—or any other artist’s work in color? How about Stieglitz’ or Walker Evans’ or Weegee’s photos? Does the

fact that Chaplin’s and Keaton’s films were shot in black & white—let alone Murnau’s, Eisenstein’s, and Griffith’s—make them inherently inferior to later, color films?

 

Then there’s the notion that color films look more realistic. Really? When was the last time you saw a movie where the color palette even came within spitting distance of reality? Movies are so heavily manipulated in post now that they look like the colorist let his six-year-old daughter loose on the file with a set of neon Sharpies. Yes, 4K HDR is capable of more accurately reproducing reality but the sad truth is that our addiction to retreating into superficial fantasy means practically no one takes advantage of what the tools can actually do.

Another argument is that colorization is a way to get jaded people raised on color media (in other words, Millennials) to check out older material. Not only is that cynical pandering, it assumes that it’s the black & white that makes these older movies and shows somehow irrelevant.

 

The only self-consistent explanation is that the need to colorize is part of the current mania to obliterate the past and to desensitize ourselves into an oblivious stupor. Eradicating black & white via color is akin to filling every movie with more and more gunplay, grosser and grosser gags, bigger, louder, deeper explosions, and greater and greater levels of intolerance.

 

Black & white, on the other hand, has traditionally been associated with things like sophistication (say, Lubitsch comedies or Astaire/Rogers musicals) and noir (take your pick), mainly because grayscale evokes both subtlety and ambiguity in ways color tends to obscure. So it’s not surprising we would want to annihilate anything that elegant and restrained, because allowing its vital progeny to run around loose would be an annoying reminder that the present is rarely a significant improvement on the past.

 

A colorization booster would say, “Why do you care what they do to some ‘50s monster flick—or some Shirley Temple movie, or some ‘50s sitcom?” But where do you draw the line—especially given how voracious and indiscriminate the people with their hands on the cultural levers have become?

 

The “Why do you care?” argument is inherently elitist—especially at a time when we like to pretend that all creative expression has been flattened to the level of pop culture (kind of like the apparatchiks using bureaucracy to enforce mediocrity during the Soviet era). I Love Lucy and the first season of Bewitched have been colorized, and that’s somehow OK because they’re “just” sitcoms (ignoring for the moment that Lucy was shot by Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund).

 

What about something like The Dick Van Dyke Show? That’s just some old black & white sitcom, right? Except that it was beautifully captured by veteran Studio Era DP Robert De Grasse, and that its black & white ethos is redolent with the best still photography of the time, of the most sophisticated films, of magazine layouts for Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. In other words, it’s the very essence and epitome of that too brief era of American Enlightenment. Dick Van Dyke in color is no longer Dick Van Dyke—which is one reason why Carl Reiner decided not to switch over to color halfway through the series’ run.

 

Colorizing it now would go directly against the creators’ intent—that last an always dubious notion that has become inherently hypocritical and virtually meaningless now—and couldn’t result in anything but a curiosity, at best, and a travesty at worst.*

 

The notion that the addiction to color could creep from the world of monster films and I Love Lucy to, say, classic noir or early Godard should scare the crap out of anyone. It’s a path we should have never begun to venture down and needs to be nipped in the bud. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

 

What would be the colorization equivalent of nuclear deterrence?

Michael Gaughn

What's So Great About Color?

(* While doing my due diligence before publication, I discovered that some war criminal has actually committed that atrocity. Hopefully there’s a circle in Hell—preferably right below Satan’s crotch—reserved just for colorists.)

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Cineluxe Trendsetters: Theo Kalomirakis

So much has been written about Theo Kalomirakis and his body of work—the subject of two bestselling coffeetable books and countless articles and videos—that there’s not much left to say. Except maybe that, for all of that attention, people still don’t have a good bead on exactly how innovative and influential his efforts have been, or that his theaters spring primarily not from an interest in gear or interior design but from a deep love for movies and the art of watching them.

Theo’s work is a sincere and natural extension of that love, which goes well beyond just being a fan to being someone who understands and appreciates the deep wellsprings that feed the art of the movies. And because of that almost naive sincerity, Theo in casual conversation is the same Theo you get in an interview on camera. He would make a lousy corporate spokesman because he always says exactly what he thinks and feels—which is why he has always been the best possible representative for the industry he gave birth to and continues to inspire, and for everything that’s great about watching movies at home.

 

We had a chance to do a a brief interview with Theo in his temporary apartment overlooking the Hudson River right before he departed for his new home in Greece—a move that included dismantling and shipping the entire private cinema in his New York City apartment to be reconstructed in his summer residence. We discussed the pandemic’s impact on moviewatching, how he was faring with an ad hoc system in his temporary digs, and whether 8K will represent the same significant stride forward as did the progression from VHS to DVD to Blu-ray to UHD.

Here’s hoping Theo will be back in the States sometime soon so we can record a more exhaustive, definitive exchange on his history, theaters, and legacy.

CINELUXE TRENDSETTERS

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

Stan & Ollie, the recent movie about Laurel and Hardy’s final years together, introduced or re-introduced many people to the incredibly influential comedy team that bridged the gap between formal theater and vaudeville and the silent and sound eras. That touching film helped spur new interest in the legendary comedy duo.

 

The fine new four-disc Blu-ray collection Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations uses restored versions of many of the team’s classic films and a bounty of extras to celebrate their work. These are perhaps as definitive versions as we will ever 

get to see. Painstakingly restored in 2K and 4K resolution, this is the best some of these films have looked since the time of their original release.

 

While I don’t claim to be the world’s leading authority on vintage film from the black & white era—though I do love a lot of early films!—the clarity found on Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations is unlike any versions of their movies I’ve seen to date. Sure, they display a certain amount of grain inherent to the early film equipment. But now you can clearly see the surprisingly wonderful sets and lighting supporting the never-ending gags, puns, and all manner of campy comebacks that have kept audiences laughing for decades. Click here, here, and here to see some side-by-

THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS
AT A GLANCE

Some of the comedy duo’s signature features & shorts receive 2K and 4K restorations in this four-disc Blu-ray set brimming with extras

 

PICTURE     

Purged of their jitter, blur, blotches, and scratches, this is probably the best these films have looked since they were originally released.

side before-and-after examples of the restorations—but they don’t quite convey the experience of just sitting down and letting yourself get immersed in the Laurel and Hardy universe.

 

This set includes some of their earliest films as a team, including a legendary reel that has not been seen in its complete form since its original presentation in 1927. Portions of their short “Battle of the Century” were lost over the years but after painstaking research most of it has been reassembled from original elements. This is apparently a world-premiere release, making its consumer-video debut after being effectively lost for 90 years!

 

The 2K and 4K transfers were done from restorations originally created for theatrical distribution by Jeff Joseph/SabuCat for the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Library of Congress using the best surviving 35mm elements, including nitrate prints. So, unlike versions you may have seen on TV, YouTube, or earlier DVD collections, these are not blurry, jittery old movies. Most of the films sport a very distinct clear and steady look. I immediately noticed a stronger depth of field than I ever remembered seeing before. The Definitive Restorations allows you to better appreciate the detail captured, with lots of location shots around Hollywood and Los Angeles (and probably other locations) back in the day. The films used to just look flat (and scratchy!), but now you can fully experience the joyful cinematography underlying these gems. 

 

While there is no fancy packaging on this Blu-ray set, the bonus materials more than make up for the lack of any sort of booklet and box that would have driven up the price. There are audio commentaries for most of the films, which makes for a great education. While I’m still working my way through them, I found the one for “Battle of the Century” (1927) especially enlightening. It is very much like taking a film-history class, with commentaries by Laurel and Hardy experts Randy Skretvedt (Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind Movies) and Richard W. Bann. (Another Fine Mess: Laurel and Hardy’s Legacy).

 

The eight hours of extras include 2,500 rare photographs, studio documents, interviews with people who worked with Laurel and Hardy, trailers, and versions of some films with alternate soundtracks. You’ll even get to see a fully restored version of 

their one surviving color film, “The Tree in a Test Tube” (1942) (a very curious clip celebrating the glories of wood impacting everyday life, made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and distributed by the U.S. Forest Service . . . for real!)

 

Some of my favorites in this set include the Academy Award-winning ridiculous-but-epic short about the two piano movers called “The Music Box” (1932). I loved “The Chimp” (1932), if only to be able to see Oliver Hardy show up on screen in a tutu! (Speaking of drag, that theme comes up numerous times in Laurel and 

Hardy films.) In “Twice Two” (1933), we get to see both Laurel and Hardy playing each other’s sisters, whom they each married in the story. Surprisingly convincing early special effects and clever editing make this mad romp all the more fascinating. The restoration allows the satin of Hardy’s dress to simply shimmer!

 

“Brats” (1930) is  a great short where Laurel and Hardy not only play themselves as adults, but also as their spoiled bratty children. The use of fantastic oversized stage props makes the film as fascinating to watch as it is funny. Be on the lookout for the animated mouse!

 

The full-length movie Way Out West (1937) looks especially crisp, and includes that classic scene of them dancing together in front of the saloon. There too you’ll see numerous clever early special effects. Be sure to watch for the recurring gag where Stan is able to light an imaginary cigarette lighter from his thumb. There is also a nifty moment where Hardy’s neck stretches like a rubber band as Laurel tries to pull him out of a hole in a piece of wooden floorboard.

 

My favorite film thus far is perhaps the rarest of the set, the aforementioned “Battle of the Century.” It is just completely over-the-top madcap fun! And even though it is technically still not complete (some scenes are missing, connected by surviving stills), it is worth putting those minor concerns aside to just take in the joy of the epic pie-fight sequence. (They reportedly used 3,000 real cream pies.) But don’t skip over the opening boxing match—the genesis of which has a fascinating history, as described in the bonus commentary. Be sure to look for the uncredited appearance of a pre-fame, 21-year-old Lou Costello, who is an extra in the crowd, a full 13 years before the first Abbott and Costello film debuted!

 

There are many other great bonus features, such as trailers for many of their films (including ones not in this package). And there is a fascinating audio-only section that allows you to hear 12 different music sequences that were backing for different movies/scenes. These were apparently taken off of one-of-a-kind transcription discs that were transferred over when discovered in 1980. 

 

There is much more I have yet to explore on this set, so I’m looking forward to continuing my journey. I also plan to order a film that isn’t included here but which I loved as a kid seeing it on TV reruns every holiday season: Babes in Toyland, based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta. Exploring Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations has been an extremely satisfying experience and is a great place to start collecting their movies.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Is “Tenet” to Die For?

Is "Tenet" To DIe For?

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet routinely gets bandied about as the tentpole to officially launch the 2020 summer movie season and herald the reopening of movie theaters. AMC initially said it would have its 1,000 theaters around the world back in operation in time for its July 17 release, but as additional waves of the virus hit, it was pushed back until July 31 . . . and then just days ago to its latest official date of August 12.

 

Disney has been keeping an eye on Tenet, and has been shuffling its own summer tentpole, the live-action version of Mulan, back to be the second major film scheduled to hit big screens, moving from its original March 27 date to July 25 and then to August 21.

 

We can glean a couple of things from this.

One, we know Nolan is a huge advocate of the theatrical experience, specifically IMAX. Remember all of his calls practically begging people to see Dunkirk in full 70mm or IMAX if at all possible? He even wrote an impassioned opinion piece for The Washington Post back in March describing how movie theaters are a vital part of American social life.

 

He is also one of the few modern directors with the clout to bend a studio to his will, and perhaps it is even in his contract that his films will debut initially in a commercial cinema—or even on IMAX screens—before any other release. Warner Bros. certainly seems willing to follow Nolan’s desire. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a studio spokesperson said, “Warner Bros. is committed to bringing Tenet to audiences in theaters, on the big screen, when exhibitors are ready and public health officials say it’s time.”

 

Second, it seems the studios have drawn a line in the sand (for now) for their major properties, and will stand firm on

releasing them theatrically . . . whenever that will be. Even it it means pushing them back a year or more.

 

Sure, we’ve seen lots of movies coming directly to home, whether as premium video-on-demand rentals or available for sale, but those have all been relatively small titles that didn’t have the revenue potential of a Tenet or Mulan (or Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick, the next Fast & the Furious installment . . .). A couple of notable exceptions are Disney/Pixar’s Onward and the decision to launch Hamilton on Disney+ a year ahead of its planned theatrical release date.

 

It seems unlikely we could have theaters responsibly opening by July 31, the current date planned for the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged, let alone just a couple of weeks later for Tenet. And we don’t even know what things will look like when theaters do reopen, whether it will be to greatly reduced capacity and mandatory distancing in auditoriums, temperature checks at the door, requiring masks, limited/no concessions, etc.

 

As much as I love a night out at the movies, and want to see Tenet in the best presentation possible, I’m not ready to bet my—or your—life on it.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

This week marks the one hundredth birthday of Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013), the legendary visual-effects artist, writer, and producer whose name is practically synonymous with the art of stop-motion animation. Even if you don’t know his name, you’re surely familiar with his work from classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Below is an interview I did with Mr. Harryhausen back in 2007, which appeared at that time in a much more abbreviated form in another, now defunct publication. Presenting our entire exchange seemed like a fitting way to pay tribute to the effects master on the centenary of his birth.

—Dennis Burger

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit tongue-tied. I’ll admit I’m quite nervous to be speaking with you.

Well, I don’t have two heads. Just one.

 

I know it’s a question you must have been asked a million times, but how did you originally become interested in special effects?

King Kong, when I saw it at the age of 13 or 14, I think it was, at Grauman’s Chinese. I haven’t been the same since. That shows how a film can affect you. It just overpowered me. I had seen The Lost World in the silent days, when I was four or  

five, because my parents were great cinemagoers, and I had seen the German films—Metropolis and all of those. But somehow Kong, with the music and the sound effects and startling animation, was just amazing.

 

When did you start to develop your own special-effects craft?

Well, I started experimenting with it. It 

took a long time—it wasn’t just “Eureka!” overnight. It took several months before I found out the glories of stop-motion. I started reading about King Kong—there were various misleading articles in Popular Mechanics, assumptions of how it was made. Very few people knew anything about animation at that time.

 

What sort of misleading things were they saying?

Oh, one guy said Kong was a great big robot, and it showed drawings of a big mechanical thing walking through a forest, and big cables coming out of his heels and going to an organ, and there’s a little man in the corner playing this organ, and that was supposed to have made King Kong move.

 

So they were just guessing.

They were just guessing, or else deliberately misleading. They kept it secret how these creatures were made because there was nothing else like them on the screen. Finally, the secret came out in Look magazine and several others. It showed Fay Wray shaking hands with King Kong, and he was small and she was big! 

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Say the name “Ray Harryhausen,” and most people think of those wonderful stop-motion animation models, but your Dynamation process was so much more than that, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was. It was a combination of special photography effects and animation. It was rear-projection, mostly, which was the basis of all my Dynamation. When we first released Mighty Joe Young, the critics would say, “Oh, it had animation in it,” and the word “animation” had always been associated with cartoons. So we wanted to get a separate name for this process. Charles [Schneer] came up with “Dyna-,” because he had a Buick at the time and it said Dynaflow, and we put “-mation” on it and made it Dynamation.

 

You’re kidding. That’s where the name came from? A Buick automatic transmission?

Yes. 

 

I believe that name was first attached to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [1958], but you had been developing the same process for several years, right?

Oh, yes, before that—since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953].

 

So it would have been the same process on 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Oh, yes.

 

Which has been re-released on DVD.

In color! Because, you know, we would have shot it in color but our budget wouldn’t take it. At the time, color was very expensive, so we had to shoot it in black & white.

What do you think of the colorization process?

Oh, I think Legend Films have done a wonderful job. We colorized She—Merian Cooper’s old film. He wanted to shoot it in color originally, but RKO cut his budget at the last minute and he had to shoot it in black & white. The picture wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea—it dealt with reincarnation. I’m glad that 20 Million Miles is being released in color. It makes it a new picture. The color really helps things. You know, I worked really closely with Rosemary Horvath in colorizing it. She knew how to push what buttons to get the right shades. I’m not that up on computers.

 

Can you tell me about the process?

Well, it’s all done on the computer. I don’t know the details. I would just say, “I think this should look more bluish, because it’s ice, and this should look that way,” and we worked it out together.

 

It’s amazing how far the colorization process has come, because I remember when King Kong was first colorized, it looked like a child had taken to it with crayons.

I know! Well, this is much better, believe me.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

What do you think about using modern computer technology to enhance a film that’s more than 50 years old?

I think it’s good. It makes it sharper and you can do things digitally that are quite remarkable.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently had you been able to shoot the film in color?

No, not really. Black & white was so much easier to work with at the time, though. This process of rear-projection—there was a big problem in that when you photographed a projected image, the colors would change due to the lamp of the projector. That was a big problem on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad when we made it. But we overcame it by various processes.

 

You’re known for working alone.

Yes, I did everything myself—because there were no books at the time about special effects. Today there are a number of them. And everything is exposed about how things are done before the picture comes out. I think that spoils it. I used to keep it quiet, because I know I was haunted for years about how King Kong was made, and I thought it was wise not to divulge everything.

 

So you worked alone to keep your work secret?

Not only that reason. I preferred to work alone because it requires a great deal of concentration. And I didn’t want to be talked out of anything.

 

I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that you, as a sort of lone-wolf animator, had so much creative control over the stories of your films.

Yes, I worked on the stories. I don’t just wear the animation hat. So, many times, I would bring the original idea in. 7th Voyage was brought in by myself, although I was very modest in those days, and I didn’t realize that modesty was a dirty word in Hollywood—it took me 50 years to realize that.

And 20 Million Miles to Earth—that was your idea, too, correct?

That was originally my story, and then I got Charlotte Knight involved, so I gave her the full credit. But it was originally my idea. I had it set in America, crashing in Chicago, in Lake Michigan, but I wanted to take a trip to Rome, so I changed the location before I submitted the story to Columbia and Charles Schneer.

 

What did you think when you saw special effects houses like Industrial Light and Magic start to pop up?

It’s amazing that they made an industrial process of it, because I found it very hard to rely on other people to do things. I’m amazed that they did it, and they did a wonderful job.

 

When you saw ILM’s work with Star Wars and so forth, did you feel threatened in any way?

No, not at all. I think there’s room for every technique, depending on the story. Stop-motion gives a quality to a fantasy film—I think if you make fantasy too real—that was half the charm of Kong: You knew it wasn’t real, and yet it looked real. I get a lot of fan mail saying that they prefer my things to that of the computer-effects guys, who try to make it so realistic that it loses the quality of fantasy.

 

So, what did you think of the remakes of Mighty Joe Young—your own film—and King Kong, the film that inspired you?

Well, it’s another person’s point of view. Merian Cooper was a single producer, and they had five producers on the remake of Mighty Joe Young. They tried to do the concept realistically, and it was a fantasy, you know?

 

What did you think of the special effects in the new King Kong, though?

They were brilliant. But you know, people don’t go see a film just because of the special effects. I think they stretched it out, the new one. The beauty of the original Kong was that it was so compact. Right from the first word of dialogue, when he said, “Is this the motion-picture ship?” you knew what you were in for. The story was so compact—there wasn’t a superfluous scene in it.

 

Whereas the new one takes a bit of heat for being overly long.

Well, yes, because they go too far into Ann Darrow’s past. And people who go to see a picture like King Kong aren’t really interested in that. I think it breaks it when the girl tries to amuse the gorilla by doing tricks. It gets into the realm of Dino De Laurentis’ remake.

 

Oh, come now. It’s not that bad, is it?

No, it was a wonderful film, but it’s a different point of view. Everybody has a different point of view, you know. And Merian Cooper, being an adventurer himself, he specialized in these adventure films.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

For someone my age, the film of yours that had the most impact was Clash of the Titans. That’s one of the major films of my childhood. But it was your last film. Why?

I don’t know. I just felt I’d had enough in the dark room. After all, I did 16 features, and did nine-tenths of the animation by myself. And most of it is the first take. We seldom had time to do retakes, so unless there was something radically wrong, we would never do a retake. With computers you can go over and over and refine it and refine it without it showing, but when you’re dealing with film, the minute you try to dupe it, it gets dupey looking. So we had great limitations.

 

When you were making Clash of the Titans, did you have any idea it would be your last film?

No, not really. I just felt we’d had enough.

 

What do you think about the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake?

Well, I think it’s a mistake. They’re not going ahead with it, are they?

 

I can’t believe I’m the one saddled with the burden of telling you this, but yeah, unfortunately.

Good heavens. Well, I read somewhere that they wanted to make it realistic. That’s the worst thing you can do to a fantasy film! You know, Greek mythology is not supposed to be realistic. I think that’s their first big mistake. But life will go on, I suppose. You have no control over that.

 

On a happier topic, what are some of your recent favorite films? Have you seen many new films?

No, I’m not attuned to the latest concepts. They forget that there’s supposed to be a story told, and they depend on cut after cut and dynamic zooms and eight-frame cuts, and that’s not my cup of tea. So I don’t see many recent films. The subject matter isn’t my cup of tea, either. They’re usually very depressing. I don’t like to sit for an hour and a half watching someone in the process of dying.

 

Given that so many people dislike CGI, why do you think filmmakers continue to use it?

Everybody wants to do things a little differently than the previous one. If someone makes a successful film, which has been going on for years, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and makes a similar type. And most of them depend on explosions.

 

What about things like Wallace & Gromit?

They’re wonderful, the puppet films.

 

But you never wanted to make them, right?

Well, I did. I worked with George Pal for two years in the early days, and we made puppet films. His films were very stylized. But Wallace & Gromit, you know, it’s a field in itself. It’s not the type of thing we were making.

 

Both the new Wallace & Gromit film and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride contained homages to you. They seem to be carrying the flame of your work.

They’re doing a marvelous job. Wallace & Gromit have been a big success, and I get a big kick out of Creature Comforts. They’re very clever.

 

Mr. Harryhausen, it’s been a real honor to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Well, I’m delighted. Thank you.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.

A Star is Born (1954)

The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.

This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and

lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.

 

In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.

 

As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.

 

So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.

 

The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made 

it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.

 

Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.

 

By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.

 

Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.

The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.

 

The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.

 

I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!

 

Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the 

The title sequence from the restoration

Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.

 

It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.

 

Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided 

to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?

 

To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.

 

In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
1776 (1972)

This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.

 

But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.

 

In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.

 

As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.

 

The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

Film is a living art form. Even though we may think a movie is a photograph frame permanently set on film and will exist as such forever, that isn’t actually true. The film frames and sound may stay exactly the same but how they survive is always an issue.

 

Beyond technical deterioration, there are other factors that influence how we view or comprehend a film from another era. How we perceive a film changes as much as society, morality, and language change for us day to day. A film from the 1930s is viewed quite differently by contemporary audiences than it was by an audience watching it in 1935. Of course, some films transcend time while others become dated, confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible.

But there is another kind of aging, beyond physical decay and changing times, that might alter a film, decade to decade. What did the movie actually look like to the first audiences that viewed it? How did the creators intend it to look? What was the original (intended) length? Now that technology has progressed so much with digital photography and editing, many film distributors, creators, and owners have come up with various ways to “restore” a film. But that is a very broad term. What is being restored? A director’s vision? The color? The sound? The length? If so, is a preview print of a film as valid as the version shown when the film was released?

 

With the arrival of home video, and the potential for an older film to be financially lucrative, there has been a trend to restore classic films. Often this is done out of love of the art form, but sometimes financial issues play too big a role in the process. To be sure, most older films are beautifully presented for home video, but there are more than several classic films where the restoration effort may have gone wrong.

I am going to take a look at 10 films that have yielded questionable results, beginning with five from 1927 to 1953. In Part 2, I’ll consider some more recent classics like the 1954 A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s incredible German Expressionist science-fiction film was trimmed substantially after its opening. It’s this shorter version that has been admired for decades. A damaged full-length print was found in a museum in Argentina in 2008. A long restoration was begun, and additional footage was found in New Zealand. The film now runs 148 minutes (still shy of the original 153-minute version). Length aside, the restored material is so damaged and scratchy, you are taken right out of the story and plunked down in a photo-lab class. Certainly, the power and horror of this masterpiece is diluted, not improved. This super-long version should be an extra on any video release of the film, not the feature presentation.

Lost Horizon (1937)

This classic Frank Capra film of James Hilton’s classic novel was a critical if not financial success in 1937. For years, many film lovers enjoyed the 118-minute version. Then, perhaps in an effort to mine more cash out of the film, a new video version was released with 14 extra minutes from, presumably, the original, extended “road show” version or possibly from a preview print. But not all the footage still existed, so some scenes consist of only audio tracks playing while production stills are shown. The footage that did exist was not from the exciting Tibetan or Shangri-La sections, but conversations on a small airplane. In both 

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

cases, the additions very much slow the action of the film. The shorter, more concise version should be made available. While it’s fun to see what’s missing, that material should only be included in the extras.

 

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

This is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s a Technicolor triumph. However, in order to return it to its true splendor, so many “restorations” have been done that we are further from the truth than ever. Since the Technicolor company

of 1939 isn’t doing the restoring, what we have now is only a Technicolor simulation. As with The Band Wagon (see below) and other MGM musicals, the imaging is often too bright with low contrast, and more pleasing to the high-def generation’s eye than representative of what was originally there. In fact, the film is so clear and sharp now that all the sets look ridiculously phony.

 

That look isn’t so far off the mark for a film fantasy, so it is tolerable—except when 

Judy Garland turns into Rita Hayworth. Judy’s hair is now unabashedly red, but if you look at any color still of the film (shot on Kodachrome, etc.), she is clearly a brunette.

 

Another issue is the new “sepia-tone” wash on the film, which doesn’t come close to sepia. Just go find a photo of your grandparents from 1940 to see what sepia really looks like. In the current Wizard of Oz restoration, the front part of the picture simply has an orange-brown wash over everything. There are no true blacks or soft flesh tones.

 

In the color segments, the colors are bright, vibrant, and fun, but where are the subtle pastels? The last time I viewed an original color nitrate print of the film (made in the film’s premiere era), it was notable how the process could capture pastel colors side-by-side with the more vivid primary colors. The newer version is simply more saturated, so the pastels are no longer soft.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The great Pressburger/Powell film from 1948 certainly deserves to be transferred to home video with great care. But this magnificent and important movie has been so cleaned up, it looks like a vibrant video today. A lot of the scenes (for example, on the balcony with the train smoke blowing by) look positively phony. It seems reasonable to surmise this is not what the creators were going for. Also, the watery softness of the original British Technicolor is now bright, harsh, and cartoonish. I would much prefer to see a dusty (or even scratchy) old, true Technicolor print of this masterpiece.

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

This is one of the great MGM musicals, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. It famously stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in their peak years in glorious Technicolor. The film has always been treated with great care by MGM (and by WB, the company that currently owns it). However, the art of restoring Technicolor can be a very tricky and 

subjective job. Since the process used to create Technicolor prints no longer exists, a restoration isn’t really a restoration but a simulation of “the Technicolor look.”

 

Most of the color looks fine today, except for one key scene: The “Dancing in the Dark” number is too brightly lit and with low contrast. The great dancing couple, who are dressed in white, are now upstaged by a very phony-looking backdrop. Originally, as it was processed by 

Technicolor, the company was able to add deeper black tones and more contrast to the background so the New York City skyline viewed from Central Park actually looked quite true to life.

 

The original designers, D.P., and colorist knew what they were doing. I saw one of the last new prints made by Technicolor in the mid ‘70s in a screening hosted by Vincente Minelli, who explained how he requested Technicolor to make the soundstage set look like an actual location shoot. The version we see today is so bright and digitally cleaned up that Fred and Cyd look like they are “Dancing on a Community Theater Stage.”

 

If one wants proof of the restoration mishap, one need only look at the original trailer for The Band Wagon. If you find a print of this from 1953, you’ll see the difference in color contrast. By the way, if you look at most of the trailers of color musicals of the 1950s, you can see what the original Technicolor looked like.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.