Mark Smotroff Tag

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

In “3 Must-See Music-Based Videos,” I presented a performance video, a jukebox musical, and a legendary concert performance. This time, all three of the highlighted titles are traditional movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less divergent in how they handle their music-themed material.

HAIRSPRAY (2007)

John Waters’ original 1988 movie was fantastic fun, with a quirky yet amazing oddball cast of characters including drag legend Divine, Debby Harry (of Blondie fame), Sonny Bono (yes, as in Sonny & Cher), comedian Jerry Stiller, Rikki Lake, and even special-guest showcases by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora.

 

While music is central to the movie—it has a terrific soundtrack—Waters’ Hairspray can’t really be considered a true musical in the theatrical sense. But the film became such a cult favorite over the years that is was eventually transformed into a fun hit Broadway musical. (I saw it in that original run with theater legend Harvey Fierstein taking over DIvine’s leading role of Edna Turnblad!)

 

Happily, the next stage for Hairspray was to bring things full circle and make a major movie out of the Broadway version, and that is where we enter the story:

 

“Good morning, Baltimore!”

 

The 2007 Hairspray is a wonder of poignant scripting, swingin’ songwriting, Technicolor-flavored staging, and a good ol’ dose of sweet-hearted fun. A joy to watch right from the opening number, the movie is chock full of earworm-worthy moments. (The 

Blu-ray version even has a sing-a-long feature!)

 

The terrific cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Jerry Stiller (yes, he appears in both film versions, in different roles!), and Nikki Blonsky in her feature-film debut as Tracy Turnblad. The ensemble cast becomes especially important for the large group and dance sequences later in the film. Even Travolta’s full-drag portrayal of Edna Turnblad makes a great deal of sense once the dance numbers start. (He’s much more limber than Harvey was on Broadway, obviously still retaining some of the skills he honed during his Saturday Night Fever days.)

Where to See Some Music

All of the films here are available on all of the major non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

The original music in Hairspray echoes the vibe of early Motown soul and Brill Building girl group rock ’n roll, falling just this side of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The songs effectively represent the near underground sounds that helped change the pace and face of musical entertainment in the early 1960s—a period when mainstream pop was quite bland and stagnant until about 1963 when Motown and The Beatles hit it big.

 

The 48 kHz (probably 24-bit) 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is gently immersive and mostly in stereo, with a tasteful use of the surrounds for select sound effects, choral group singing, and overall ambiance. The music sounds rich, warm, and rocking.

 

The film’s look and feel features a rich, diverse color palette balanced by the gritty street realities of urban Baltimore. All this combines to make Hairspray a highly enjoyable home entertainment experience that somehow makes time melt away.
A / G / I / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

ONCE (2007)

Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once tells the story of a charming near-romance between two broken-hearted musicians who meet amidst unusual circumstances. In reality, Hansard is primarily a musician, singer, and songwriter who not only led his fantastic rock band The Frames for decades but also first came to this writer’s attention as part of the band in movie The CommitmentsIn Once, he plays an aspiring singer/songwriter armed with great songs, a passion for his unfulfilled musical dreams, and the unlikely prospect of reconnecting with his former girlfriend.

 

There is a great real-life back story to this film that ultimately became a terrific promotional vehicle for Hansard and Irglova, who ended up romantically involved and later formed a musical side project called The Swell Season. In the film, members of The Frames participate in a recording session that borders on Partridge Family idealism yet somehow manages to make you suspend disbelief while simultaneously tugging at your heartstrings. 

 

This is not a big-budget production, but Once has a great independent-film look and feel that plays well on a big screen. Parts of it were filmed guerrilla style on the streets in Ireland.

 

It’s well worth the price of admission to watch Once for the mesmerizing opening sequence and for Hansard’s jaw-dropping performance of “Say It to Me Now” on solo acoustic guitar. (Do take note of his guitar, which has been worn down so much it has gaping holes in it!) 

 

There is much joy to be found in this heartwarming film that eventually became a Broadway show. Once can be found on Kaleidescape and on Blu-ray with a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that sounds good and feels as natural as the cinematography. This film is ultimately a beautiful cinematic experience, thanks to compassionate acting, a strong script, and a timeless tale.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

A STAR IS BORN (1954)

This Judy Garland masterwork—the second of the (to date) four versions of A Star Is Born and in many ways the benchmark-setter—deserves to be seen and appreciated on multiple levels. Beyond the fascinating and heart-wrenching story line, this film was a make-it-or-break-it moment for the Wizard Of Oz star. Accordingly, the studio pulled out the stops. Containing truly stellar performances by both Garland and James Mason, A Star Is Born contains many jaw-dropping visuals, including a fantastic behind-the-scenes perspective on what Hollywood was like in its Golden Age.

 

To get some idea of the richness of the production, one need go no further than the demo-worthy scene featuring the now classic pop/jazz standard “The Man Who Got Away.”  Set in an after-hours jazz club, you will see arguably Garland’s finest moment on the silver screen, a perfect blend of tremendous music, impassioned performance—I still can’t believe she’s lip syncing to a pre-recorded track, it’s that good!—and beautifully designed staging supported by expert lighting. This one scene is like a mini film-within-a-film that took months and several complete redesigns to perfect—as explained in the deluxe edition bonus features on the Blu-ray + DVD deluxe edition that came out in 2010.

 

From a home theater enthusiast’s perspective, one of the really interesting things about the 1954 A Star Is Born is that it has one of the first stereophonic movie soundtracks, a good four years before stereo records became a commercial reality. The movie is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but the surround channels are mostly for room-filling ambience. Most of the action is up front in stereo, and that’s just fine. The sound design is tasteful, innovative, warm-sounding, and ultimately an integral part of the viewing experience. 

 

When Norman Maine (James Mason) walks into the club prior to “The Man That Got Away,” note how the audio perspective convincingly creates the sense that you’re Mason’s character opening the door and entering that environment. And near the end, when Mason is starting to seriously contemplate suicide, the scene suddenly switches perspective. You can see him reacting to a distant conversation that Garland is having, which sounds like it’s literally coming from another room.

 

A Star Is Born is full of well-crafted details like that, making it an important film to take the time to appreciate. One of Warner Brothers’ first CinemaScope films, it remains one of the greatest dramatic musical movies ever.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

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?

12 Music Streams for Every Taste

It may be the worst of times right now, but in an odd way it’s the best of times for home entertainment as a multitude of fascinating new live-entertainment templates are emerging. Musicians have been performing from their bedrooms and home studios, some even figuring out ways to collaborate all while staying in their safe spaces. Many organizations are opening their archives with previously unreleased recorded performances of plays, operas, and musicals. Heck, there are even global virtual music festivals happening!

 

Here are some current faves—some upcoming, others that may be archived. I’ve tried to focus on performances that offer higher production values but do recognize that in some instances you may well see and hear performers broadcasting via their cellphones! Amazingly, the results are often a lot better than you might expect and no doubt the performances are unique.

 

In each of these recommendations, click on the subhead to jump to the event link. (For those who want to dig deeper, I have written overviews of performances from the lockdown for Audiophile Review.)

12 Music Livestreams for Every Taste
THEATER

The Show Must Go On

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical force behind Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and so many other hit Broadway shows, has a weekly program of free showings of one of his musicals. Called The Show Must Go On, each program is available for 48 hours, so you can tune in whenever you like over the weekend! I watched some of Cats and it looked quite wonderful. Judging from the quality of the trailers shown on the program’s YouTube page, I suspect most will be fairly high quality productions. There is also a full two-hour show archived from Webber’s Royal Albert Hall Celebration.

12 Music Streams for Every Taste
JAZZ

International Jazz Day

On April 30th, Herbie Hancock hosted an event bringing together the jazz music communities around the world called International Jazz Day Virtual Global Concert 2020. Literally featuring artists from across the globe, streamed live via jazzday.com, the concert includes performances by John McLaughlin, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marcus Miller, Jane Monheit, John Scofield, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Joey DeFrancesco. I have watched some of this 720p video stream and it is a wonder. Generally, the fidelity is excellent and the video quality quite remarkable, especially when you see upwards of 20 musicians jamming together on screen from their homes. Even Charlie Puth performing on his keyboard through his computer from his bedroom sounds wonderful. One of my favorite moments is South Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah doing “My Favorite Things” on a kalimba (i.e., finger piano)—a wonderfully poignant performance.

 

SF Jazz Fridays At Five

San Francisco Jazz has started a new weekly subscription series called Fridays at Five, broadcasting one-hour Happy Hour concerts from their exclusive archives. The lineup looks impressive, with Friday May 8th including guitar wizard Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano from 2019. I suspect these will be professionally shot high-quality productions and, having seen several shows at the venue, I can attest to its fantastic acoustics and lighting. Other scheduled shows include Wayne Shorter Celebrations (with Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade), Chucho Valdés and Irakere 45, and Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turris. For the $5 entry fee, this seems like a great value and an excellent way to support the jazz community.

 

Jazz Foundation of America Live

Broadcast in conjunction with relix.com, this live concert is a benefit for the Jazz Foundation Musicians’ Emergency Fund. The virtual concert—called Jazz Foundation of America Livefeatures an incredible lineup, including Bettye LaVette, Sheryl Crow, Robert Cray, Elvis Costello, Milton Nascimento, Anjelique Kidjo, Stanley Jordan, and Ivan Neville performing form their homes and via archived previously recorded live concerts. The show was originally supposed to just be broadcast a second time but seems to be up on Relix’s YouTube page as one six-hour continuous program, so hopefully it will stay there for a while for all to enjoy and to continue benefitting this organization’s noble mission.

 

Tuck and Patti

This magnificent jazz duo performs regularly via Facebook through their computer, literally from their living room couch! Tuck and Patti feature Tuck’s gorgeous, rich jazz-guitar work and Patti’s remarkable vocals. Each show I have seen has been a joy, and you can contribute to their virtual tip jar as well (which you should!). Many of their performances are archived at their Facebook page. You can also reach them via their website

12 Music Streams for Every Taste
ROCK/BLUES

New York Guitar Festival

If you want some blues love, this series may be your virtual ticket. Currently focusing on the legendary Reverend Gary Davis, it includes stay-at-home/studio performances by some of the greatest blues/folk guitar pickers of our times. I first got introduced to Davis’ music via Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), who turns in a great version of “I Am the Light of This World” from his Fur Peace Ranch. The amazing duo Larkin Poe offer up a searing “Say No to the Devil” and Fantastic Negrito offers a wonderful “Candyman.”  Bill Frisell’s beautiful “Twelve Gates to the City” is ethereal and haunting, as one might expect from this artist. Much joy here, most of it streaming in 1080p quality on YouTube. Many of these artists have nice home studio setups so the sound is generally solid. The music is sublime.

 

The Rolling Stones’ Extra Licks

England’s once-newest hitmakers have announced their Extra Licks! weekly digital archive series on YouTube, which sounds quite promising. Tied in to YouTube’s #StayHome campaign, the Rolling Stones series began May 3rd with the acclaimed 2016 Latin America Ole! Tour video. Future programming will stream six concert films from throughout their career, including performances from the 1994 Voodoo Lounge Tour.

 

BBC Stay Home Live Lounge

The BBC has pulled together a big roster of artists from around the globe for its Live Lounge program. The Stay Home Live Lounge got off to a super wonderful start with some of the music industry’s biggest stars collaborating on a cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” to raise money for charities. Net profits will go towards The Who’s COVID-19-Solidarity Response Fund. On this one video are not only The Foo Fighters themselves but cameos from more than 20 other stars from around the globe. It’s a wonderful performance.

 

The Mavericks’ Raul Malo: Quarantunes Playlist

Imagine hearing 20 joyous cover tunes done by The Mavericks’ glorious singer Raul Malo from his studio-enhanced home office. Now imagine him playing most of these songs on his Mellotron emulator with all manner of fun pre-programmed rhythm beds and you can imagine it’s a special brew of recordings. I won’t be surprised if he puts these tracks out as an album. But it is really fun watching his videos, which include covers of “All of Me,” “Besame Mucho,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Solamente Una,” and my personal favorite, “Brazil.” You can find the playlists on Facebook (link above) as well as on YouTube.

12 Music Streams for Every Taste
OPERA/CLASSICAL

San Francisco Opera

The world-renowned San Francisco Opera company has announced a special series of streaming performances, including Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles, Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. With each performance, you’ll basically have all weekend to watch and no registration is necessary! 

 

Metropolitan Opera’s Nightly Streams

New York’s Metropolitan Opera company is serving up almost as much opera as you can consume, streaming a different performance every night! These programs appear to be streamed in as high quality a format as possible (probably varying dependent upon age of the source material) via The Met’s website. Included are gems like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Verdi’s Luisa Miller, as well as more contemporary, such as Nico Muhly’s Marnie. I watched some of the Prince Igor stream, and it looked and sounded quite wonderful! Seeing Joan Sutherland again performing her signature role of Lucia brought tears to my eyes. 

 

San Francisco Symphony: Music Connects

While I have not yet heard about any livestreaming full concert performances, the members of the San Francisco Symphony have not been idle during COVD-19 isolation. Via the SF Symphony’s website, I have found numerous solo and group performances that have been shared by the performers as a Music Connects stream. It’s also up on YouTube directly so you can just start the playlist of 23 performances—some are snippets but most are full performance pieces of individual compositions that will cycle through for your enjoyment in 1080p resolution. Look for the adorable moment where the xylophone player gets reprimanded by his young son for playing Bach!

 

 

Clearly, this is a moment where livestreaming is finding a powerful new purpose. I can see this continuing and growing long after the current crisis is over, especially for artists who can’t tour for health or budgetary reasons, especially as they learn how to deliver superior production values and a compelling entertainment experience. Livestreaming is a great opportunity for the arts community!

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?

3 Must-See Music-Based Videos

3 Must-See Music-Based Videos

Across the Universe

There is no shortage of things to watch these days, but sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the good stuff is hiding—especially when it comes to music-related programming. There are often things that look cool but fall flat in other areas, particularly with the actual performances. Some programs sound great but have lesser production values that become obvious when viewed on a quality home theater or media room system. 

 

Here are three music-centric presentations that offer dynamic visuals, impressive—even game-changing—performances, and compelling, often immersive, surround sound experiences. (All three are available on Blu-ray and for download from Kaleidescape. Across the Universe is also widely available for streaming.)

 

 

Pat Metheny: The Orchestrion Project—Stunning Visuals, Magical Music

Whether you like Pat Metheny’s music or not, watching this live-in-the-studio end-of-tour video featuring his Orchestrion project, is a mesmerizing demo-worthy view. Not sure what an Orchestrion is? Well, perhaps an excerpt from my earlier review of this performance on Blu-ray will help paint a picture:

 

Have you ever been to one of those “Pizza ‘n Pipes” type restaurants? You know, one of those places where they rip apart an old-time movie theater pipe organ and then set it up in a pizza parlor, placing all the inner workings and 

accompaniment instruments (like percussion ‘n bells ‘n stuff) all around the restaurant for all to see and watch while the organist plays. It is really quite entertaining and mesmerizing if you can find one that is still open.

 

So that is effectively what we have here in a 21st 

Century manner—a computer-propelled, guitar-user-controlled orchestra all performing compositions Metheny wrote specifically for this project. The results are spectacular! 

 

I have this performance on Blu-ray and it looks terrific in 1080p, with remarkably crisp definition on all the multitude of instruments in the dynamically lit loft studio space. The lossless Dolby TrueHD surround mix (up to 7.1 channels) delivers a very immersive experience, but even in stereo the sound is rich, engaging, and almost three-dimensional.    Kaleidescape

 

 

Across the Universe—Demo-Worthy Beatles Bliss

Beatles fans tend to be divided about this film, but I have much love for it. It is one of the rare instances where Beatles music has been reinterpreted well, in a compelling new way while still respecting the underlying song.

 

All in all, Across the Universe has a great deal of entertainment depth to it. It can be viewed on its own, with a strong storyline and extremely high production values. As a musical, it works very well too, bringing new meaning/interpretation to the Beatles’ music in the context of the storyline. And if you are a Beatles fan and of ‘60s counterculture, with its iconic stars like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Jimi Hendrix, you’ll no doubt catch the references. There are all sorts of neat little Easter egg-type moments peppered throughout. (For example, all the characters are named after people mentioned in actual Beatles songs.)

 

I love how Joe Cocker plays three completely different characters during the “Come Together” scene (a bum, a hippie, and a pimp!). Be on the lookout for a re-creation/representation of Janis’s psychedelic painted Porsche on the streets of New York in

one scene. There are many references like this throughout the film.

 

Across the Universe is a rich viewing experience with an immersive soundtrack that starts out subtly and builds in intensity as the plot-line thickens. For example, listen how the room ambience changes in the opening scenes during the relatively simple early

Beatles rocker “Hold Me Tight,” which shifts perspective between parallel lives of key characters who have yet to meet. One is shot in a bright wood-floored American dance-hall auditorium while the other is in a murky, claustrophobic stone basement club in England. I’m pretty sure that latter scene was shot in the current version of Liverpool’s Cavern Club (a nightspot where the Beatles initially built up their following). It’s all the more impressive how the music stays in sync between what sounds like two different bands performing (although I suspect it is probably just the different mixes that create that aural illusion).

 

By the end of the film, scenes such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” have sometimes intensely immersive surround mixes supporting the spectacular psychedelic-dramatic visuals. These could become demo-worthy audio-visual experiences for some of you!

 

I’ll leave you with some advice pulled from one of John Lennon’s early solo singles: “Play Loud”!  This movie sounds great when you pump up the volume, so don’t hold back. If you want to read more about Across the Universe, click here and here to get to one of my earlier reviews related to it.    Amazon / Google / iTunes / Kaleidescape / Vudu / YouTube

 

 

Jimi Hendrix: Live At Woodstock—Legendary Rock History

In the annals of rock and roll, there are a handful of seminal concert performances everyone needs to experience at some point. Near the top of that list are the ones by Jimi Hendrix. 

 

This recently updated version of his appearance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 is particularly important because new footage materialized that fleshes out the performance, in which portions were missing. (Camera people ran out of film stock and were switching reels.) At some points, you can see angles the official cameras missed, especially closeups on Hendrix’

guitar playing. The new footage was shot unofficially by a 22-year old student from Bard College who brazenly walked up on stage with primitive video gear he had access to. He timed his ascent to the stage carefully so he would be seen as part of Hendrix’ and the filmmaking entourage, allowing him to openly set up his gear and record the performance! 

 

In this footage, segments of the performance missed 

3 Must-See Music-Based Videos

by the actual film crew were captured and 30 years later were shared with the Hendrix Estate for the sake of historical preservation. So while there are inevitable technical imperfections visually—this new footage is low-res, early black & white video—to be able to effectively see the full performance for the first time is a wonderful thing indeed! All things considered, it looks remarkable, benefitting greatly from the delayed beginning of Hendrix’ set during the daytime on the final day of the festival. If he had gone on at night, the footage would not be so compelling.

 

Original engineer/producer Eddie Kramer mixed the whole concert into 5.1 surround sound so now you can enjoy a quite fabulous immersion into the feel of what it might have been like standing near the stage during Hendrix’s legendary performance. It’s not exactly “demo worthy,” but musically and historically, Hendrix at Woodstock is essential viewing and listening.

 

After this, go back and watch Hendrix’ performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967—his game-changing career breakthrough in the U.S.—and at the Berkeley Community Center (recordings that ended up on the great posthumous album Hendrix in the West).    Kaleidescape

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?

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

I have been a fan of the musical and movie versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch for a very long time and take a certain amount of pride knowing that I was in on the phenomenon quite early. I got into the original cast recording when the show was still in its infancy. We even flew from California to New York in 1999 primarily to see the show when it was still way Off 

Broadway down on Jane Street in Greenwich Village. Michael Cerveris was starring in the production then; I think he was the second Hedwig, right after creator John Cameron Mitchell.

 

Hedwig was everything I expected and more. I came home abuzz, trying to tell as many people as I could about this amazing music and production. I even convinced a one-off cover band I was in for a special benefit concert to do “Wicked Little Town”—which confused many in the audience, who had no clue what we were playing, yet it excited the handful who were hip to it. (I have a recording of that somewhere.) I’ve seen other productions of the show since, including most recently Mitchell’s fabulous Origin of Love concert tour, which was extremely rewarding—I finally got to see the original Hedwig!

HEDWIG AT A GLANCE

Criterion does its typically superb job of presenting this glam/punk/pop musical classic on Blu-ray.

 

PICTURE

Wonderful 4K transfer, but maybe a little too faithful to the original film, retaining more grain than contemporary audiences are used to.

 

SOUND

The 5.1 mix is warm and inviting, but way too conservative for a rock ‘n’ roll film that could use a little rear-channel action. 

The music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is spectacular, springboarding off of an early-’70s glam-punk-pop template shaped by David Bowie, Marc Bolin (T-Rex), Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Mitchell and songwriter/lyricist Stephen Trask crafted a grand rock musical so compelling that Hedwig has enjoyed performances around the globe, including a successful Broadway run in 2014 starring Neil Patrick Harris.

 

When I recently learned about a Blu-ray release of the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which had sneaked out last year, I scurried over to Amoeba Music and found their last copy. Thus, our review here today . . .

 

Generally, I’m quite pleased with this new edition from Criterion. Packaging-wise, it has a very different look from the original DVD version, more in keeping with the show’s artful, Germanic, drag-punk aesthetic. With its wild hand-drawn angular lettering and such, the design feels like some alternate-universe German silent film akin to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The original movie art looked nothing like that.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Those are details not lost on me given the story’s genesis (which I assume you know . . . but if you don’t, please click here for a link to the Wiki that can help bring you up to speed).

 

The picture quality on the Criterion Blu-ray of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is quite wonderful, restored at 4K. The colors are beautiful, with a very distinct sense of film grain. The latter detail is both appealing and distracting, and I admit I’m a bit on the fence about how I feel about this. I know it’s the most authentic vision, representative of how the film should look, but perhaps we see almost too much grain. I wouldn’t change it, of course. But I do need to acknowledge this, for what it’s worth. 

 

The detailing is nonetheless quite lovely, especially in the closeups. The ruby slipper-like sparkle on Hedwig’s lips is pretty incredible!

 

The detailed booklet in this Criterion issue features all 

manner of behind-the-scenes images and insights, including artwork tracing the character’s evolution. The bonus materials are essential, including a charming memory piece where John Cameron Mitchell explores his archives, telling stories of how Hedwig came together, illustrated with rare memorabilia and video footage. (Some of this section mirrors tales he told on his recent Origin of Love concert tour.) The interviews with cast and crew are revealing and enlightening. I’m still going through these materials, but so far I am very pleased.

 

My only disappointment with this edition of Hedwig and the Angry Inch involves the sound. The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround sound mix was a letdown—it is effectively a stereo mix with generic room ambience in the rear channels. It would have been nice to hear even a little bit of discrete activity in those channels! Maybe we will get that in a Super Deluxe Edition version somewhere down the pike.

 

That said, the mix does ultimately treat the music very nicely, sounding warm and inviting, almost analog at times. Accordingly, Hedwig and the Angry Inch sounds its best when you play it loud—after all, rock ‘n’ roll should be played at full volume! So if you love this movie musical and decide to get this new Criterion edition, don’t hesitate to turn up your amplifier to 11 for maximum rock ’n’ roll velocity.

 

You won’t regret it.

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?

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In Part I, I walked you through an obscure boxed set from the legendary Les Paul and the likely definitive Beatles boxed set. Here, we’ll look at innovative sets from a couple of rock legends and an elusive collectible from possibly the greatest song stylist of the 20th century.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1

This set (shown above) is fascinating, and if you are a Neil Young fan, it’s essential. Inside this oddly sized, semi-cumbersome-to-open treasure chest you’ll get seemingly endless riches. Documenting his earliest recordings up through the period around his big breakthrough smash-hit album Harvest, you get a deep dive into Neil’s world, from classic album tracks 

to live concerts, demos, and unreleased recordings.

 

Everything on the Blu-ray edition is presented in high-resolution audio, so the sound is terrific and there are fun onscreen visuals that you have to be something of an audio geek-o-phile with a sense of humor to appreciate. Click here to watch Neil’s trailer for the set, with many glimpses of what to expect, including high-res video footage of records and reel-to-reel decks playing back the music on screen.

 

There is a lot of deep detail, and the set was designed at the time to connect to the internet, where you could hear even more tracks that didn’t make it into the box. In 2010, this boxed set won the Grammy Award for Best Art 

Direction on a Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package! It’s a neat thing. And while it’s not cheap, it is not astronomical to pick up these days on Discogs, ranging in price from $120 to $240.

 

Oh, and you may be wondering what happened to Vol. 2? It has been continued and expanded on the internet and as a series of ongoing vinyl releases. So there hasn’t been another physical boxed set like this one, and there probably won’t be, which makes Volume 1 all the more intriguing and desirable to own.

Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse Chronicles

After the success of The Who’s Tommy, main songwriter Pete Townshend prepared another rock musical called Lifehouse. The storyline was ahead of its time, and the elaborate concept was ultimately whittled down into The Who’s landmark 1971 smash Who’s Next. Townshend soon crafted another brilliant rock opera called Quadrophenia, yet he never gave up on Lifehouse, and by 1999 he got to present it as a musical radio play on the BBC.

 

This wonderful six-CD boxed set dedicated entirely to Lifehouse was only sold on Townshend’s website and The Who’s 2000 tour. It includes not only that 1999 BBC radio play but four

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 3

discs of Townshend’s original demos and his continued experiments over the years (including songs that ended up on later Who albums!).

 

The packaging is gorgeous, presented in a sleek grey corrugated cardboard design with the Lifehouse logo and design etched into the cover. Inside, each CD gets its own rainbow-colored sleeve, and there is an informative full-color booklet. Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and there are some amazing works here. This set wasn’t cheap to begin with, and sells online (at Discogs) upwards of $270. There is one on Amazon going for much more. Whatever price you pay, if you are a fan of the music and the man, it’s worth it.

 

 

The Astaire Story
Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In 1953, jazz impresario and record-label owner/producer Norman Granz pushed forward on a wondrous journey, pairing by-then-legendary dancer/actor/personality Fred Astaire with jazz-legend-in-the-making Oscar Peterson. Issued in a super-deluxe boxed-set package, the album featured Astaire singing—and sometimes tap dancing!—with Oscar and his band.

 

If the individual albums are difficult to find in any condition, the deluxe version is near impossible to track down (at least reasonably priced). It was a limited edition of exactly 1,384 copies (it says so in the set!), each signed by Astaire and the artist David Stone Martin. I have never seen a copy in person, but from the photos online, it seems to use cloth-

bound, padded-style packaging with looseleaf-styled binding to house liner notes, the discs, and some wonderful drawings by Martin.

 

And consider this: Along the way someone told me there was an even more deluxe edition that was sold back in the day bound in a leather-clad folio! I don’t know if this real or mythology, but I am keeping a watchful eye out for one to materialize somewhere along the way!

 

I have been aware of this set for several years—there is even a nice CD reissue, which I have reviewedbut I have only found three of the four LPs out in the wilds of record collecting (stores, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.). I just saw one copy of the deluxe set on eBay going for $720 with the rare blue-vinyl pressing.  But . . . I remain intrigued as I’ve never seen the rumored leather-bound version.

 

The quest continues . . .

 

 

This is the kind of treasure hunting I love and keeps me excited about collecting music!

 

There are many more deluxe-edition sets to explore.  Stay tuned for my next article in this series.

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?

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

In the world of collectible music, the venerable boxed set has proven to be a highly prized and desired artifact of home entertainment. The ultimate statement for many an artist, these sets are a chance to present their music in a definitive light.

 

Boxed sets are often limited editions that can accrue in value. Exploring the packaging can be an enjoyable experience complementary to the music inside. Many sets include memorabilia, such as hard-cover coffeetable books chock full of pictures and artist details. Some sets have bonuses like buttons, marbles, board games, and other fun merchandise the artists have created for their fans.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Vol. 1

They seem to be more popular than ever, too—over the past 10 years, not a Record Store Day or Black Friday goes by without a special edition making some headlines, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Heck, there is even a website dedicated to new boxed-set releases. And there seem to be more and more sets released every year.

 

But you might be surprised to learn that the boxed-set concept isn’t new. I’ve seen special-edition sets dating back to the early days of recorded music, especially with the advent of multi-disc album sets on 78 RPM records in the 1940s, and have encountered vintage multi-disc deluxe editions for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with cloth-covered padded covers and such.

Just last year, Craft Recordings (a deluxe imprint from Concord Music, which owns a multitude of labels including Fantasy Records and Prestige Records) put out lovely (and expensive) sets celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane that mimic the 1950s design aesthetic. (Click here for my review of the Coltrane set.) They sell for $200 or more new!

 

I’ll show you some of my faves, including one in Part 2 that I have yet to get my hands on!

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1
Les Paul, The New Sound

I only learned of this set of 78 RPM discs last year when I discovered a nearly mint-condition copy at a flea market. For those of you not in the know, I am a very deep fan of Les Paul, dating back to the 7th grade or so when I discovered one of his 

albums at a garage sale. His solo in “Bye Bye Blues just knocked me out. And thus began a quest that continued into college in the form of a Jazz History term paper that ultimately led to my freelance-writing side career!

 

I’ve written about Les in the past and even been to his house once. (He was nice enough to autograph the issue of DISCoveries, shown at right, containing my interview with him.) I’m a deep collector, so finding this set I never knew existed was remarkable. That it was in pristine condition was miraculous given the fragility of shellac 78s. I knew some of these songs came out as individual 78s in 1948 and on a 10-inch LP in 1950. But this boxed set of 78s is something I’ve not seen or read about anywhere. No one has posted a copy on the record collectors’ site Discogs. (I will probably post my pix there for posterity someday.) I did find one at this site, but it doesn’t seem to be for sale.

 

What is the value of a set like this? To me, it’s invaluable. To a record store, it’s 

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

probably not worth a lot, but I don’t care. I’m not selling it! The discs include the first experiments Les released in his creation of multitrack recording, using his groundbreaking sound-on-sound technique recording direct to disc at 78 RPM! In essence, everything most of us love about high fidelity pre-recorded music today has its roots in these recordings by Les Paul.

 

 

The Beatles in Mono

This gorgeous limited-edition boxed set was a significant and different animal than the similarly presented stereo Beatles boxed set. All the recordings were made direct from the original mono master tapes in an all-analog mastering process similar to how the records were made in the 1960s. The packaging and labels are period-accurate, which is fantastic for most of us 

who have never been able to get our hands on the rare original UK editions. Even if you could find them, chances are they wouldn’t sound as good since they were probably played to death on primitive equipment.

 

Why is this so much better than the stereo? It turns out that the earlier boxed set was mastered from 44.1 kHz, 24-bit digital files (a few steps above CD

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

quality). Probably embarrassed, the label pulled out all the stops for the (in some ways more important) mono box. It is a gorgeous and fantastic-sounding collection.

 

The set wasn’t cheap when it came out (at about $400 or so) and is now selling for a minimum of more than twice that, and upwards of three times the price on eBay!  A limited edition, it’s doubtful they will ever produce another set quite like this one again, so that makes this collection of all the Beatle records up through The White Album extra special.

 

You can read my three-part review of the set by clicking here, and here, and here. If you’re in a Beatles mode, the Sgt. Pepper boxed set is pretty wonderful too, albeit a different focus (more about Blu-ray Discs and such but still great). Click here, here, and here to read my three-part review of that set!

 

In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some extraordinary boxed sets devoted to works by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Fred Astaire.

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?

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

There are many ways to listen to high-quality, great-sounding music but not everyone knows about the multitude of wonderful options that are readily available these days. Some of you well might be enjoying the resurgence of vinyl and turntables. I am certainly into those (always have been!), and yet I am also a fan of high-resolution surround sound music from Blu-ray, SACD, and DVD Audio discs!

 

Curiously, in these 21st Century times, downloads are fast becoming retro technology, especially as high-quality dedicated, computer-driven streaming audio services have become a strongly viable option for many listeners.

 

And I’m not talking about just pulling up some random advertising-riddled audio-videos on YouTube, which often are quite awful sounding with no information as to what you are hearing. A lot of people do this. In fact, YouTube has grown so popular

for music listening that Billboard is now counting it in their tracking of the album charts.

 

It’s a thing, as they say . . . But, you know, tinny sounding monaural AM radio was also once a thing.

 

We can do better than that, fidelity-wise!   

 

I’ve tried several of the popular modern internet streaming services. While Spotify gets points for its sheer volume of titles, to my ear it has never sounded particularly good nor especially high fidelity. Fortunately, there are some real fine genuinely “HiFi” alternatives. For the past couple of years, 

I’ve had access to two of the premier high-resolution, subscription-based streaming-media services, which deliver fidelity at a minimum of CD quality and often much much higher: Tidal and Qobuz.

 

These are especially good when you stream music in their respective high-resolution formats: MQA (aka Master Quality Audio) and Hi-Res. Both services offer thousands of albums new and old to stream. Any albums in Tidal’s catalog marked with an “M” have the potential to play back in higher 24-bit depth, many at 96 kHz and higher resolution. I reviewed one title

streaming at 352.8 kHz that sounded fantastic!

 

The upsides to Tidal and Qobuz are many, but there are some crucial connections you’ll need to make to get the most out of these services. While your installer can likely help you integrate streaming into your current sound system, here are some of the basics you’ll want to understand.

 

First and foremost, you will probably need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to 

help integrate music streaming into your home entertainment system from a computer or mobile device. The DAC essentially handles the quite significant processing muscle your computer would otherwise be required to do in order to deliver high-resolution audio to your system. In a loose sense, MQA is to high-resolution internet streaming as DTS and Dolby are to surround sound, compacting large audio files for delivery to you that get unpacked when decoded locally in your home. 

 

If you want to stream in MQA format, make sure your DAC is compatible. Alternately, if you don’t want to bother with a DAC and a computer, there are very cool new stand-alone products on the market that may be more appealing. Last year at a preview event here in San Francisco, I heard (and reported on) NAD’s M10 systema beautiful-looking piece of modern hardware designed purely for streaming.

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

NAD’s M10 BluOS streaming amplifier

How to Get Audiophile-Quality Streaming

Mytek’s Brooklyn Bridge streamer/DAC/preamp

When using these systems on a day-to-day basis, it is important to understand that Tidal requires a bit more finesse to use, settings-wise, so you might want to ask your installer to help you dial that in. If you don’t want to mess around with the settings, Qobuz is probably the easiest one-click solution. Just hit Play, and the DAC recognizes the “Hi-Res” album you have chosen and plays the music. 

 

There are trade-offs. When comparing identical albums on each platform, there are some sonic differences you might notice. To my ear, most times the MQA versions on Tidal tend to sound best—something to do with how it handles the music and presents it to you sounds more appealing to my ear. Again, this also depends largely on a variety of variables, including the quality of your DAC, the pedigree of the recordings the streaming services received from the music labels, how the music was transferred to digital for streaming purposes, and what resolution files were provided to the service for streaming. That is another discussion for the future and a reason to look for my reviews here and on Audiophile Review.

 

Streaming services can be a rabbit-hole adventure as you compare the sonic differences between titles—many times, you’ll find an album in both CD and high-resolution versions on these services, so it can be fun to compare and contrast.

 

Basic use of each service is easy: Just search for titles you want to play and then mark them as “favorites” if you want to add them to “your” collections. You can also build playlists, which are fun and handy.

 

So, what recordings should you stream? In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll try to make recommendations of cool albums to check out. Most everything you might want to hear is up there, from Abba to Zappa, quite literally! 

 

Happy streaming!

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?