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'Spinal Tap' vs 'Almost Famous' DVD Review

By bittur in Media
Tue May 08, 2001 at 10:49:23 AM EST
Tags: Music (all tags)

These titles prove that DVDs may be the future of the industry. Too bad the industry doesn't seem to know why. I also get a little long winded about the future of various entertainment industries. The most important question: Why aren't 'they' giving us what we want?

I recently picked up 'Spinal Tap' and 'Almost Famous' and realized that these two movies are all you need to understand, enjoy and laugh at the heavier side of the 70s. Of course, the best way to round out this duo is to add 'The Song Remains the Same' by Led Zeppelin, but that's another story.

I have to extend my thanks to the people that brought us these fairly accurate snapshots of time, for without them, we wouldn't know about the 'need for 11 on amps' and wouldn't feel quite as bitter about Cameron Crowe's early - and I mean early - days as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. It must have really sucked to have to hang out with the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers and other big 70s bands.

It's time for me to be honest: I prefer satire, so 'Spinal Tap' wins the round and easily KOs 'Almost Famous'. But is it really the last round? All of the elements that made 'Spinal Tap' great may also result in 'Almost Famous' becoming a classic as well. At the time, a moderately popular director named Rob Reiner took a talented, young cast including Harry Shearer (who provides many of the voices for 'the Simpsons' and did a fine job as a nasty reporter in Godzilla), Christopher Guest and Michael McKean and captured an era with near perfection. The list of cameo appearances also makes for a lot of moments where you say 'wow ... he was in that?'

I also believe that Spinal Tap's best quality is that it would be very difficult to do a rock satire now without having some kind of reference to the Tap. The problem with 'Almost Famous' is that it's based on the life of real people, and stories of this nature tend to take on a sensitive, personal aspect that makes them slightly untouchable. In other words, we're hoping we don't get sued for this review ;)

Of course, there are other, more important differences, most related to the physical product that I purchased. By the way, you may have noticed that this really isn't a movie review.

As I viewed each DVD, I noticed 'Spinal Tap' had waaay more bells and whistles. The people who put together the final product for this thing added tons of extras, including an hilarious commentary of the whole movie by the Tap, several videos, almost an hour of out-takes, and a few additional 'mock-umentary' interviews with Rob Reiner, the funniest of which was about Danish cheese rollers. Of course, they've had nearly 20 years to prepare this, so they've got a slight advantage.

The 'Almost Famous' DVD tries very hard to captivate me, but fails. A series of Cameron Crowe articles for Rolling Stone seem to be 'cut and pasted' to the final DVD production and as a result, prove to be hard to read and very lengthy. I did pause for a moment where I read about Jimmy Page purchasing Alistair Crowley's house in England and had a few problems with ghosts, but I can easily get that information from the web so the added value to the product is marginal.

Now, I could go on for a long time about each movie, but I'll save my breath and tell you that they're both worth renting, but try to avoid buying them until the industry brings out a better product.

I want to make it abundantly clear that the industry - which obviously includes film production - is STILL not getting it. My understanding of the technology is limited, but I do know this: a single side of a DVD holds more than 9 gigabytes of information. A movie that has been compressed with very little loss will take up about 700 megabytes, or less than one tenth of the available space. However, to avoid any loss of quality, most movies wind up taking up about 7 gigs of space.

This still leaves a massive amount of room for all kinds of extra features, all of which can be made difficult to reproduce so that people will actually want to go out and buy a DVD. If the industry keeps pumping out products the way it is - limited content for a high price, consumers will continue to find alternative distribution channels for their entertainment.

For example, neither disk has a soundtrack that I can play in the background while I'm working or having a party. Why? Because we're expected to run out and buy both the movie AND the soundtrack, pumping more of our hard-earned cash into someone else's pocket. Actually, the real reason is that two of the big five companies can't agree on the specifications for DVD audio. Until they decide, apparently consumers are going to have to suffer.

Here's how they could have made the add-on features for 'Almost Famous' more interesting: the movie is virtually a soundtrack with a story line, so Cameron Crowe should spend some extra time explaining why some songs were included and others were not and what they meant to him. This is personal. This is real. This is interesting.

My conclusion is that the industry is actually quite young, the technology is good and the opportunities are endless. Too bad the decisions about what's going on disks is made by the wrong people.

This is why networks like Napster took off and why we (here's the shameless plug) with BarChord.com have so many opportunities to offer something better.


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'Spinal Tap' vs 'Almost Famous' DVD Review | 29 comments (27 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Interesting (4.50 / 4) (#1)
by hulver on Fri May 04, 2001 at 09:21:25 AM EST

Stuff like this almost makes we want to go out and buy a DVD player. Until all the controls on them are removed though, I never will. I don't like not being able to fast forward through the rubbish at the start of a film, or have somebody else restrict where they think I should be able to watch a disk that I've paid for.
Sounds like they could do a lot with the technology, if only they can be bothered.

Not as restrictive as everyone says (4.00 / 2) (#3)
by John Milton on Fri May 04, 2001 at 12:20:50 PM EST

I know everyone goes on and on about how the region coding of dvds is such a bad thing. I agree, but it really isn't that big a restriction. For one thing, you can usually find a way to hack around the region coding for most dvd players. Another thing is that you really can't watch to many foreign dvds without the region coding. I know how to remove the region coding on my dvd player. Even if I did, it wouldn't do me too much good. Australian and european dvds are encoded in PAL color format instead of the American NTSC format. Unless you have a multi-standard television, you aren't going to be able to watch one of those foreign dvds.

There's a lot of cool equipment at dvdoverseas. You can buy region hacked dvd players, multi-standard televisions, and multi-standard vcrs there. As for the crap at the beginning, you're right. I don't particularly like being forced to watch the FBI Warning every time I pop my dvd in. I can deal with that. What absolutely ticks me off is when they use that lock-in to make you watch trailers. You have to watch the trailers every time you watch the dvd. Sure you can fast forward through them, but it still just annoying. Any movie that disables the fast forward on the trailers is going back to the store.

"When we consider that woman are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should Treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." -Elizabeth Cady Stanton

[ Parent ]
I look at it differently (none / 0) (#6)
by RandomPeon on Fri May 04, 2001 at 02:58:20 PM EST

I'm boycotting the things on moral grounds. Until the MPAA stops using DVDs to oppose free speech, limited-term copyrights and fair-use rights, I won't buy any. It probably makes no differences, but in good concience I won't buy DVDs. Don't think you'll always have the choice of taking your movies back - once VHS is pulled from the market, I guarantee you that every DVD will have 10 minutes of ads that you'll be forbidden to fast-foward through.

[ Parent ]
Forced trailers... (none / 0) (#12)
by cei on Sat May 05, 2001 at 03:23:23 PM EST

I know a lot of people complain about being forced to watch trailers - tacking them on as title tracks that can't be scanned through.

Yes I've seen it done, but of the ~150 DVDs I own, I think I only have 3 or 4 that actually do this.

It shouldn't be a deal breaker... it's being blown out of proportion.

[ Parent ]

Spinal Tap (4.00 / 3) (#2)
by wiredog on Fri May 04, 2001 at 10:41:46 AM EST

Killed the 'rockumentary' movie. No one can make a movie that follows a band around on tour because Spinal Tap's devastating satire of the format makes every rockumentary unintentionally funny.

I saw Spinal Tap when it was first released, and even have the album (on vinyl!). When you watch the movie, remember that it came out before the 'hair bands' were all over the place.

If you liked Spinal Tap see "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show", which are two more Christopher Guest mockumentaries. Best in Show is a send up of the whole dog show scene. Every bit as good as Spinal Tap.

"He choked on vomit" "Not his own"

The idea of a global village is wrong, it's more like a gazillion pub bars.

Startup.com should be seen after these (none / 0) (#28)
by mushmouth on Wed Jun 13, 2001 at 03:01:33 PM EST

I suggest watching Startup.com after any of the Mockumentaries, to see how close to reality they are.

[ Parent ]
Almost Famous: SE (4.66 / 3) (#4)
by ianpointer on Fri May 04, 2001 at 12:28:22 PM EST

Just so you know, Cameron Crowe is supposedly working on a Special Edition DVD that has has original cut of the film, plus the usual features (commentary, documentaries, etc).

What's this "versus" crap? (3.00 / 1) (#5)
by ucblockhead on Fri May 04, 2001 at 02:50:39 PM EST

A good review overall, but what's with this "versus" and "X wins the round" crap? Is it a competition?

Both are good movies. The Tap CD is a great CD. (I haven't seen the Almost Famous one.) What is this obsession with determining which is "best"? Who cares?

On a sad note, it looks like tapster is no longer a Spinal Tap download site. :(

Good thing I already downloaded it all. :)

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup

tapster.com (none / 0) (#29)
by mushmouth on Wed Jun 13, 2001 at 03:02:44 PM EST

You can still get the MP3s from spinaltap.com. (I don't know if the tapster commentary is still there though)

[ Parent ]
700 megs? (4.00 / 1) (#7)
by delmoi on Fri May 04, 2001 at 03:26:21 PM EST

DVD holds more than 9 gigabytes of information. A movie that has been compressed with very little loss will take up about 700 megabytes, or less than one tenth of the available space.

Where the hell did you get that number? Sure, you might find a Divx that size, and assuming the movie didn't have to much high-speed action, it might look pretty good.

But if purchased a DVD copy of, say, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon And it looked like my Divx Copy (800mb), I'd be pretty pissed. The fight scenes aren't even worth watching.

The other problem with your theory is that DVD video is a standard, MPEG2 format. Not mpeg 4. And there is no way you'll be able to just 'include' a Divx decoder on the disk for all the different DVD architectures out there.

A VHS tape can hold about 9 gigabytes as well, but that doesn't mean you can stick 40 hours of Divx encoded movies on it either.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
Numbers (none / 0) (#20)
by rbt on Tue May 08, 2001 at 10:05:06 AM EST

Still, mpeg4 has been around for quite some time with the chips required to boot. It's not new, it's just that mpeg2 has been everywhere with professional studios for the last 20? (guessing here) years -- so going with mpeg2 meant costs would actually decrease over VHS video. Don't need that final conversion step.

An mpeg4 gets about 3x compression over an mpeg2 and looks as good or better. Compress your 8GB vob files to 2.5GB mpeg4 and it'll look pretty damn good. This would give the space required for a ton of other stuff -- which I remember them pushing. Things like 'watching all recorded scenes from all recorded angles'. Having multiple directors cuts in regards to which shot was used for which scene. Stuff like that -- not to mention multi-lingual audio for most popular languages. Of course, with regioning the last became silly.

I don't particularly want anything more than what the movie is, I just want to see what was recorded and have the choice of making my own cut.

Double sided double density disks would have been easy with cartridges. This would have given the space required without having to use mpeg4. So, 2 available methods, neither used.

[ Parent ]
MPEG timeline? (none / 0) (#23)
by bigdavex on Tue May 08, 2001 at 01:19:17 PM EST

It's not new, it's just that mpeg2 has been everywhere with professional studios for the last 20? (guessing here) years
MPEG-2 video was standarized in 1994. MPEG itself formed in 1988. See the MPEG website.
Still, mpeg4 has been around for quite some time with the chips required to boot.
I disagree. Hardware MPEG-4 decoders are most definitely cutting edge.
An mpeg4 gets about 3x compression over an mpeg2 and looks as good or better. Compress your 8GB vob files to 2.5GB mpeg4 and it'll look pretty damn good.
It really depends on the bitrate. At higher bitrates (such as ~ 5 Mbps on DVD), MPEG-2 approaches MPEG-4 quality. MPEG-4 video was designed to excell at low bitrates.

[ Parent ]
Mpeg Timeline (none / 0) (#24)
by rbt on Tue May 08, 2001 at 01:45:14 PM EST

Your certainly correct about mpeg. For some reason I had thought it was in use for quite some time for video compression. I wonder if it was in standard use before it became a standard? For somereason I've put both ahead by about 4 years.

[ Parent ]
timeline (none / 0) (#25)
by bigdavex on Tue May 08, 2001 at 02:07:53 PM EST

I wonder if it was in standard use before it became a standard?
Yeah, that's a good point. I don't know how long, though.

[ Parent ]
8GB dvd movies? (none / 0) (#27)
by coffee17 on Wed May 09, 2001 at 01:53:58 PM EST

Obviously you haven't been ripping them (livid doesn't work on my system, and xmovie is jerky, so the best way to play DVD's is to rip them, and give them a quick divx high bitrate encoding (and since I'm going thru all the trouble I get encode an additional copy to be about 640M to throw on cdrom later), and then watch them (which is odd, I thought that mpeg4 was supposed to be more complex than mpeg2, perhaps it has to do with xmovie's drawing to X being less efficient than mplayer and aviplay?). Of the 40+ DVD's I've ripped, probably 5 or 6 of them were in the 8-9G range (note, I've also seen about 5-6 unencrypted DVD's). Most of them are in the 4.5G range (cough: single layer). Heck, some anime movies will be as low as 3 G for now apparent reason (horrible interlacing effects are apparent) when they don't use the remaining space.

Sure, the movies would probably look better if the studios upped the bitrate, but it would cost them more to manufacture, and most people wouldn't notice the difference.

And if there was a mini revolution and DVD's suddenly are all unencrypted mpeg4, what I'd rather see is 4.5G mpeg4 and fuck the extras. The extras are just that: extra. Of the DVD's I own and watch on a real DVD player, I've only once looked at the extras, and it didn't really seem worth the minor effort to navigate the menu. I buy or rent DVD's for the movie, not for lame trivia, concept art, trailers and out-takes. I think that most people are in the same boat as me on this.

[ Parent ]

Factually incorrect (5.00 / 4) (#8)
by Potsy on Fri May 04, 2001 at 03:50:41 PM EST

This bit:
[A] single side of a DVD holds more than 9 gigabytes of information. A movie that has been compressed with very little loss will take up about 700 megabytes, or less than one tenth of the available space. However, to avoid any loss of quality, most movies wind up taking up about 7 gigs of space.
Is wrong. DVD uses MPEG-2 compression, which only gives you acceptable quality at data rates of at least 4-5 megabits per second, and that's not including audio. Yes, they really do need all those gigabytes of storage to get good video quality.

It's possible to get acceptable quality at around 700MB using more advanced codecs like MPEG-4, but at the time the DVD standard was set, MPEG-4 didn't exist. No doubt the next generation of video format will use a more advanced codec, but DVD is MPEG2-only.

The 9 GB figure is for a dual-layered disc. Most dual-layered discs are single-sided. If you ever see a double-sided disc, chances are each side is single-layered, meaning they each only hold about 4.7 GB. Double-sided double-layered discs can be made, but the manufacturing difficulties prevent them from seeing widespread use. To illustrate just how problematic dual-sided, dual-layered discs are, look at this example: the "Ultimate Edition" discs of Terminator 2 were first issued as 17 GB, dual-sided, dual-layered discs, but problems forced them to go to a two-disc scheme. If you buy it now, you'll probably get one of the newer boxes which contain two single-sided, double-layered discs.

Lastly, I have to say that extras are just that -- extra. The main purpose of getting a movie on disc is to watch the movie. Extras are nice, but they certainly should not be squeezed onto a disc at the cost of storage needed for video and audio data of the actual movie. If the picture and sound quality suffer due to a low bitrate, all the extras in the world cannot make up for that.

Factually incorrect (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by bittur on Fri May 04, 2001 at 04:57:53 PM EST

Thanks for the correction. It was an 'off the cuff' remark that I should have researched a little better.

Nonetheless, there's still room to ask for better product, isn't there?

What I'm really after is this (still no justification for poor research): when movies are created with very, very obvious soundtracks, I'd be a much happier consumer if I could buy one item that had both.

Perhaps I'm incorrect in thinking that this should be possible?

[ Parent ]
Isolated Music tracks, etc... (none / 0) (#11)
by tankgirl on Fri May 04, 2001 at 07:29:14 PM EST

My copy of 'Little Shop of Horrors' has an isolated track with the musical score. So, it only plays the voices associated with the score. That's an option for any DVD produced currently. It could have been utilized here, but maybe the record companies wouldn't allow it. Could be something simple as that.

I believe 'Yellow Submarine' also featured an isolated musical score.

Another example of a well done DVD would be 'Fight Club', with five alternate voice tracks containing commentaries from just about everyone involved in the movie. Plus a disc with bonus material.

So it's possible to get the extra bits in there, it just requires a little TLC from the movie studio....
"I'm afraid of Americans. I'm afraid of the world. I'm afraid I can't help it." -David Bowie
[ Parent ]
Music-only tracks (4.00 / 1) (#14)
by Potsy on Sun May 06, 2001 at 02:29:23 AM EST

You are correct that it is possible to have music-only tracks on DVDs. And some do, such as "Vertigo", "The Matrix", "Camelot", "Little Shop of Horrors", and so on. But that is usually a lossy-compressed Dolby Digital track. If you want a high-quality soundtrack, you'll need uncompressed audio, like that found on a CD. DVDs do allow for uncompressed PCM digital audio to be stored on the disc (and I don't mean the new DVD-Audio standard, I'm talking about the current DVD standard, but that takes up a lot more room than lossy-compressed digital audio.

It's important to keep in mind that everything that gets added to a DVD means less room for the video and audio data of the actual movie. In many cases, the "extras" are placed on a second disc to help ease space contraints ("Fight Club" is one example of this).

On the other hand, there is usually some room left over on the disc even when the video and audio tracks for the movie itself are done at the highest quality (which usually means high bitrates). One example of this is MGM's excellent disc of West Side Story. This is a film that is over 2 and a half hours long, is encoded at a fairly high bitrate (around 6 Mbit/sec), and looks absolutely awesome. Yet there is still nearly 2 GB of free space on the disc. A stereo, uncompressed PCM audio track of the musical score would have taken up only a few hundred MB. There is obviously plenty of room for that on the disc without having to sacrifice any of the film's superb video and audio quality.

So you're right. It is possible for the studios to include high-quality music only tracks on DVDs. Of course, the question for them is not whether it's possible, but whether it's profitable. If they included the musical score on the DVD, that would cut into sales of the soundtrack on CD, meaning less money for them. They probably stand to make a lot more by selling the movie and the soundtrack seperately than on one disc. I'll bet that's why we don't see more music-only soundtracks.

By the way, I'm serious about the picture quality of the "West Side Story" DVD. I've yet to see a disc that matches it. If you want a good example how DVDs should look, do yourself a favor and check it out.

[ Parent ]

Possibility vs. Profitability (none / 0) (#19)
by bittur on Tue May 08, 2001 at 09:41:00 AM EST

Your second-last paragraph suitably made the point that I was alluding to with the whole article. Given my inexperience with K5, I didn't want to shout this out, but you're bang on when you bring up profitability vs. possibility.

I think that as consumers, we're smart enough to realize that we should be entitled to ask for more, if that's what we really want. Of course, if it's not delivered, we're proving that we can find our entertainment elsewhere. Does that make sense, or am I just extending my rant?

[ Parent ]
Hmm (4.50 / 2) (#9)
by spacejack on Fri May 04, 2001 at 04:32:12 PM EST

I saw Almost Famous on DVD with a friend, and we enjoyed it. After that, we watched the making of segment. This practically wrecked the whole thing for us with Cameron and his buddies gushing about the times and showing how many of the key scenes were constructed in painful detail. Yeah, the scene where the kid says "ask me again" is nicely done, but seeing it analyzed clinically ruins that. I might not mind seeing a "making of" for a movie like Star Wars, or Jurassic Park, but for movies that are primarily plot-driven, or that rely on emotionally manipulative techniques, it kinda destroys whatever magic they manage build. Just M.O.

You're COMPLAINING? (3.50 / 2) (#16)
by jethro on Sun May 06, 2001 at 09:26:05 PM EST

Excuse me...

A whole lot of DVDs include special features such as "Widescreeen!!!" and "5.1 Sound!!!", which in my opinion should count as "Standard features".

Then you get Spinal Tap, which you note has an INCREDIBLE amount of extras, and you're STILL not happy? The Spinal Tap DVD is, in my opinion, awesome. One of the best produced DVDs to date. So it doesn't have the soundtrack, big deal. Like you want the TV going when you have people over?

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is kinky.
Extras (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by bittur on Mon May 07, 2001 at 02:16:41 PM EST

I guess I'm just a cheap prick ;)

The problem is, I can't help getting a little resentful about products when I know studios can do a little better.

And yes, Spinal Tap is easily one of the best DVDs (for any genre) that I've seen so far.

[ Parent ]
Re: Re: Extras (none / 0) (#22)
by jethro on Tue May 08, 2001 at 12:25:53 PM EST

Well, I have to apologize for sounding rather flame-baitish before.

Other than a soundtrack, what would you like on a DVD? I really couldn't think of a lot more than what Spinal Tap offers.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is kinky.
[ Parent ]
Just a link (3.00 / 1) (#18)
by Office Girl the Magnificent on Tue May 08, 2001 at 09:28:45 AM EST

If anyone is interested in reading the research Pedro Picasso and I did on DeCSS and the MPAA, you can find it here. We did this a while ago, last summer I believe, so some of the links may be out of date -- particulary the news links.

Warning: T-shirts are availible for sale at this link. Viewing this link may cause spontaneous urge to purchase apparel.

It is a semi-commercial site (Pedro sells the t-shirts online and out of the trunk of his car), but the research is solid and we believe in the cause.

Moderation in everything. Including moderation.
-- Mark Twain

DVD Extra stuff (3.00 / 1) (#21)
by thejeff on Tue May 08, 2001 at 10:49:02 AM EST

Extra goodies, interviews, soundtracks, out-takes etc cost money to add. Not necessarily in DVD size, but in producing and deciding what to put in, rights to various things, etc.
90% of movies that I want to see I have no interest in any of this. I'd rather just see this stuff on Special editions, not the regular version. If it's in every version, then that cost is passed to me, even where I don't want it. I'd rather see cheaper regular editions especially for rental and more expensive versions with all the bells and whistles for fans and collectors.

Script fees (5.00 / 1) (#26)
by cei on Tue May 08, 2001 at 02:14:01 PM EST

As part of the settlement with the Writers Guild, if a studio wants to put a script on the DVD release of a film, they now have to pay the writer $5000.

I've been involved in DVD-ROM content for The Abyss, T2-special edition and a handful of others. Script-to-Video was always a nice feature to add, and it wasn't too hard to include.

Now, I'm guessing studios will be less inclined to offer that feature unless they're doing an Ultra-Whiz-Bang Special Platinum-Covered-Gold Edition.

[ Parent ]

'Spinal Tap' vs 'Almost Famous' DVD Review | 29 comments (27 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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