Roy Orbison: Black & White Night
Rated: Not Rated
Length: 64 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080i
Languages: English DTS Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM Stereo
While doing some background research for this review, I discovered that something of an urban legend has sprung up regarding the career of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame singer Roy Orbison. The story being told is that Orbison was largely unappreciated until the last few years of his life. While Orbison’s career was in fact revitalized in eighties, the truth is that he was a huge recording artist in the sixties. Billboard’s charts show that between 1960 and 1966 he had 22 Top 40 singles, eight of which made it into the Top 10. Two of his singles, “Running Scared” in 1961 and “Oh, Pretty Woman” in 1964, reached the #1 position.
What happened to Orbison in the mid-sixties was no different than what was experienced by many other American recording artists. The British Invasion, which was spearheaded by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and others, left precious little radio air time for American artists such as Orbison, no matter how talented they were. Some of them actually welcomed the change. Hall of Fame guitarist Duane Eddy told an interviewer that he had been on the road continuously for six years by the time The Beatles came to America, and he was happy to kick back and relax.
Orbison signed with MGM Records in 1965, where he had a few moderately successful singles and an undistinguished crack at film acting (The Fastest Guitar Alive, 1967). A country album which he recorded for Mercury Records in the early seventies failed to chart. Although unable to rekindle his recording career, Orbison continued to enjoy popularity overseas and he toured extensively. However, the touring came to halt when he suffered a heart attack and had open-heart surgery at the age of 41.
His comeback began to take off after he recorded a duet in 1980 with Emmylou Harris, “That Lovin’ Feelin’ Again,” which won a Grammy Award. His recording of “In Dreams” was used by David Lynch in the film Blue Velvet and he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He recorded a duet of his 1961 hit “Crying” with k.d. lang in 1987 and earned another Grammy Award. In September, 1987 he assembled an all-star group of singers and musicians for a concert to be held at the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. That concert is the subject of Roy Orbison: Black & White Night, which has been released on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment.
If anything, the phrase “all-star group” is an understatement. The lineup is virtually a “Who’s Who” of the late eighties music scene. Providing vocal and/or instrumental support are Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Steven Soles, J.D. Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Jennifer Warnes. The band consists of Alex Acuna on percussion, James Burton on guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, Jerry Scheff on bass, Ron Tutt on drums and Muke Utley on keyboards. Just think for a minute about the respect a singer would need to have to get k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Jennifer Warnes to agree to be backup singers!
The 64-minute program appears to have been filmed pretty much the way to concert unfolded. It was not Orbison’s style to banter with his audience, so he simply comes on stage and performs the following songs:
Only the Lonely
Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)
Go, Go, Go (Down the Line)
Mean Woman Blues
(All I Can Do Is) Dream You
Oh, Pretty Woman
Orbison also sings “Blue Angel” during the concert, but for some reason it was omitted when the concert was released on VHS, laserdisc and DVD. It was included on the HD-DVD release and is the only extra on the Blu-ray disc. Why Image did not just edit it back into the concert is a mystery.
Roy Orbison was 51 years old when this concert was performed on September 30, 1987, but his voice had lost none of its power. Anyone unfamiliar with Orbison’s music should know that he was truly unique. He used his soaring, powerful tenor voice to sing what has been called “dramatic ballads” – sometimes songs of unrequited love, sometimes songs of love lost, at other times songs of love realized in spite of great obstacles. Many of them end in a crescendo that causes a chill to go down the listener’s spine. During the closing credits J.D. Souther calls Orbison "the world's only operatic rockabilly singer."
For this concert he put together a truly remarkable group of musicians, all of whom seem perfectly content to play supporting roles. Bruce Springsteen and James Burton have the opportunity to lay down hot guitar solos on a couple of numbers, but it is clear that no one gives any hint of wanting to upstage Orbison. In fact, it is obvious from their expressions and reactions that everyone involved is having a great time.
It was my recollection that Black & White Night originally aired on HBO, but I now realize that it was first shown on Cinemax on January 3, 1988. Due to time constraints, the original broadcast omitted the songs “Claudette” and “Blue Bayou,” as well as “Blue Angel.” Critics loved the show, and a few months later Orbison joined up with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to record “The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. I.” He followed up that success with "Mystery Girl," his first hit solo album in nearly twenty-five years. From that album came his tenth and last Top Ten single, “You Got It.” Roy Orbison was planning to embark on an ambitious concert tour of the United States and Europe in 1989, but he was tragically struck down by a massive heart attack and died on December 6, 1988.
Per the opening credits, the actual title of this concert is “Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night.” Under any name it is a treasure, a wonderful record of one of the most unique and talented singers of the twentieth century.
The HD-DVD release of Roy Orbison: Black & White Night led to an aspect ratio controversy. As with the HD-DVD version, here the concert is presented in 1080i with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The program aired on Cinemax with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and it appears that it was filmed with the latter aspect ratio in mind. A direct comparison with the standard-definition DVD shows that the widescreen image has been cropped slightly on the top and bottom, while adding nothing on the sides. Purists have argued that the cropping amounts to desecration, an argument with which I disagree.
In general, I am opposed to anything which alters the original composition. However, this is a concert, not a feature film. Unless you are concerned with seeing what kind of shoes Orbison is wearing, you will miss nothing of significance. On the contrary, the 1.78:1 image provides the viewer which much more immediacy and a better feel for what it must have been like to be at the concert. I doubt that anyone who has never seen the 1.33:1 version will realize that anything has been cropped.
This is not to say that there are no issues with the presentation. The transfer appears to be a flawless rendition of the original, but not everyone will love how this concert was filmed. I have seen several references to the MTV style of editing, and in fact it is dizzying. The first song, “Only the Lonely,” has a running time of 2 minutes, 28 seconds. I counted 57 cuts in that song, meaning that each individual shot lasts an average of less than three seconds (some actually last for less than a second). It appears that six cameras were used, including an 8-mm camera which was used for reaction shots of the audience. Depending upon which camera was used, the shots of the performers range from nearly grain-free to moderately grainy, while the shots of the audience exhibit heavy grain. The director, Tony Mitchell, also was the director of photography, and he made the perplexing decision to keep a couple of the cameras in soft focus.
Otherwise, the presentation exhibits strong contrasts, mostly inky blacks and good shadow detail. Overall the Blu-ray image is a considerable improvement over the standard-definition DVD.
The DTS Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is terrific. The soundstage is expansive and the surround channels are effectively used to create space between Orbison, the musicians and the backup singers. I cranked the volume up and could not detect a single note of distortion. Roy Orbison’s songs tell stories, so the ability to make out the lyrics is very important. Fortunately, he enunciated as well as Sinatra and the lyrics are never obscured by the music. I sampled the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and the stereo PCM soundtrack. Both are fine, but I prefer the DTS track. Personal preference will dictate your choice.
The only extra on this Blu-ray disc is the performance of “Blue Angel,” which is shown in 1080i and with the same audio options as the main program. The failure of Image to include the supplements which appear on the standard-definition DVD is a disappointment. The DVD has biographical sketches of Orbison and the musicians, a still photo gallery (including rehearsal photos and photos of promotional materials related to the original Cinemax broadcast), and a note from Orbison’s son. These features could have easily been carried over to the Blu-ray disc, and their omission may cause you to want to hang onto the DVD version.
The single disc is secured in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.
The Final Analysis
If you are a Roy Orbison fan, picking up this Blu-ray disc is a no-brainer. It is one which has high repeat value and you will enjoy watching and listening to it many times. On the other hand, if Orbison is new to you this is an excellent opportunity to experience why he was so special.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: Available Now (released September 30, 2008)