F or millions of Americans, the growth of the VCR in the ‘80s has turned living rooms into personal movie palaces. The popcorn may not be as tasty, the picture not as sharp and the sound not as forceful as in the real theater, but it’s cheaper to rent a movie and the local video shop offers a far greater choice of pictures than even the neighborhood 10-plex.
Laser discs now upgrade picture and sound to such a dramatic degree that they turn living rooms into concert halls.
That’s one reason lasers are the most exciting thing to happen to pop music since compact discs. Think of this new electronic toy this way: They’re like watching a CD.
The experience is so satisfying that lasers will probably even force you to abandon what once seemed an undeniable truism: The only way to see rock is live.
There are about 400 music titles available in laser, ranging from movies and concert specials to video compilations and documentaries. Here’s an introduction to some of the most celebrated rock moments on laser--from Elvis in the ‘50s to U2 in the ‘80s.
“Elvis ’56.” Media / Image. There was no reason for anybody to be in the Memphis recording studio in 1954 when 19-year-old Elvis Presley was first experimenting with the country, gospel and blues styles that he loved. Who ever expected those sessions to change the shape of contemporary pop music? By 1956, however, Presley was well on his way to becoming rock’s greatest star and he was often in front of the camera.
This mostly black-and-white documentary, which includes his national TV debut on the Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” as well as later appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen shows, focuses on that breakthrough year. Levon Helm’s narration is stiff, but the footage itself is frequently magnificent.
The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” Criterion. There’s a documentary (“Compleat Beatles”) that gives an overview of the Beatles’ career as well as some other Beatles-related films (“Help,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Magical Mystery Tour”) available in laser, but this 1964 feature by Richard Lester remains the most endearing glimpse of the Fab Four’s early vitality and charm. Extra features in the deluxe edition include the original trailer and interview with director Richard Lester, but the regular version (at $49.99 versus $79.99 for the deluxe) is sufficient for most fans.
“Don’t Look Back.” Paramount Home Video. D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 solo tour of England remains a captivating look at what it must be like for someone to be in the absolute center of pop-music attention. Taking us far deeper into the world of the artist than “Elvis ’56" or “A Hard Day’s Night,” Pennebaker demonstrates in this somewhat cold, unsentimental portrait the way fame invites arrogance and vanity in both the artist and those around him. Dylan is an ideal subject for such a penetrating look because he has always seemed to be torn between reaching for fame and disdaining it.
“Jimi Hendrix Live at Monterey.” HBO Video / Image. Some of the key concert footage is also in “Monterey Pop,” an excellent documentary on the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival that marked a dramatic changing of the guard in rock. But this 48-minute program expands on that performance by adding footage from other Hendrix shows. Highlights include renditions of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
“Woodstock.” Warner Home Video. The appeal of this three-hour film about rock’s most celebrated weekend once seemed tied almost exclusively to the musical performances. But there’s an intimacy and immediacy to the laser version that makes the looks at the audience equally effective.
“Gimme Shelter.” RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. This gripping survey of the horrors of the violence-plagued Rolling Stones concert at Altamount in the months after Woodstock is invariably prized for the way it showed how fast the idealism of Woodstock was shattered. But the documentary is equally effective as a companion piece to the superstar vanity of “Don’t Look Back"--the way the artists and their business allies pushed forward with the outdoor concert, regardless of concerns of police and civic officials. It’s this sense of all-consuming power that makes all the more riveting the moments when Mick Jagger realizes he is helpless in face of the escalating violence. “If we are all one, let’s show we are all one,” Jagger pleads from the stage, impotent against what is happening below.
“Motown 25: Yesterday-Today-Forever.” MGM / UA Home Video. There is a lot of show-biz sentimentality and a few ill-advised guests in this 1983 TV special, but the best moments serve as a fitting toast to a magical era in pop music. Ranking with the great sequences in pop history: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk-highlighted performance of “Billie Jean,” a number that telegraphed his artistic independence and toasted his emerging brilliance.
“This Is Video Clash.” CBS/ Fox Video. The most striking thing about these six promotional videos is how they showcase, quite accidentally, the escalating pressures on the British punk band that tried to carry a banner of revolution and change into a rock arena that was so deeply resistant to change. There’s the confidence and unity of the band in the early clips, but there’s a confusion and division that is so apparent by the final clip that it’s no wonder the quartet soon broke in half.
“Prince and the Revolution Live.” Pioneer Artists. Rock had become such a segregated (white only) world in the ‘70s that black artists were viewed with suspicion when they tried to reach for a rock audience rather than stick in soul or pop boundaries. By the time of this 1985 tour, however, Prince--who had once been booed off the stage when opening for the Rolling Stones--had released the “Purple Rain” movie and he was the toast of rock. This concert film captures well the aura of celebration and triumph of Prince in a moment of oh-so-sweet victory.
“U2: Under a Blood Red Sky.” RCA / Columbia Pictures Home Video. Made during the Irish band’s 1984 “War” tour, this concert film offers an especially moving glimpse of a young band at the very moment both it and its audience realizes the group is stepping up to greatness. Watching the concert again reminds you of one advantage lasers have over live performances: You can relive treasured moments.