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HOME ENTERTAINMENT : A Tour-de-Force for Robbins as ‘Roberts’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With campaign ’94 rhetoric mucking up the landscape, the timing of “Bob Roberts” coming to laser with an incisive analog soundtrack couldn’t be better. Tim Robbins’ razor-sharp 1992 political satire plays especially well on the small screen in a Pioneer Special Edition ($70) with a rapier-like commentary from writer-director-star Robbins, a tour of the cutting-room floor and scenes from Robbins’ “Saturday Night Live” segment from which the film sprang.

As the charming right-wing musician who turns ‘60s Dylan and ‘30s Guthrie anthems inside out to seduce the press and the electorate, Robbins is in top form. Clearly, “Bob Roberts” is Robbins’ vision of democracy and its gatekeepers, the journalists supposedly there to protect it, gone haywire.

The joy of the analog soundtrack lies in seeing how clear Robbins’ vision is and how, as a filmmaker, he has learned to send a message without sacrificing any of the bite, zest and snap that good storytelling requires.

Like his mentor Robert Altman, for whom he became Hollywood’s “Player” nonpareil, Robbins has learned how to operate on a shoestring. It wouldn’t be surprising to find that he tweaked it on an MCI family and friends plan.

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As we accompany him scene by scene through the movie, we meet the faces that populate the film: his accountant, who plays his wife; his young stepdaughter in her first screen appearance; his brother-in-law; the host of actors from his Actors Gang theater workshop; acting buddies who worked for scale (Peter Gallagher, Helen Hunt, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, James Spader, Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon).

In acknowledging his debt to the “SNL” appearance that grew into the film, Robbins reminds political cartoonists that kindness isn’t their coin: “Satirists can’t be polite. They have to be rude. They have to risk offending at all times.”

The film’s producers may have initially wanted a movie that was a nice little comic satire and didn’t risk offending, but that’s never what Robbins envisioned. “My purpose in making this film was to frighten people with what can happen with demagoguery--an image-controlled society that does not question itself enough with a press that is not vigilant enough to control erratic elements of the government until after that control would be effective,” he says. “People’s lives are sacrificed because of this lack of control and vigilance.” His words are even more effective coming over powerful sequences of the film itself.

Robbins, with his brother David, wrote the clever music that became candidate Bob Roberts’ smooth anthems. “Bob’s songs are about illusion and are false,” he explains, and therefore he never allowed a soundtrack to be released that could end up promulgating the distorted message.

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But Robbins wanted to finalize his vision with a song grounded in reality. He came upon a Woody Guthrie song, “I’ve Got to Know,” and received permission from Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, to use it as “a real cleansing, a benediction from the father of American folk music.” Played over the end credits, it is “a reaffirmation of the power of good music,” Robbins says, a coda that supplies “a song about truth.”

The laser disc’s third side, in CAV, provides a look at a good many scenes snipped from the final release, revealing the tough choices Robbins the filmmaker had to make to keep the movie from bogging down. Among them are many telling scenes from the “documentary” a la “This Is Spinal Tap” that frames the film and weaves in and out of it. These outtakes are especially gripping since they add information and insight to the almost-too-real Bob Roberts’ biography.

There hasn’t been a more authentic or realistic look at the political process since Garry Trudeau and Altman’s “Tanner” hit the television screen on HBO (also available on laser).

Also part of the package are production stills from the making of the film and a rather gushing commentary from Gore Vidal, who played Roberts’ liberal senatorial foil, for the informative back cover.

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All in all, this is a first-rate laser production that does full justice to an extraordinary film.


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