Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Roy Orbison: Black & White Night (1987)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

A special one-time event documenting one of rock and roll's greatest and most unique performances. Recorded live at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, Roy Orbison is joined by an eclectic ensemble of rock and roll superstars. Highlighting this all-star line-up are Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, T-Bone Burnett, J.D. Souther, Jennifer Warnes, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Orbison and fellow performers spend a scintillating hour performing many of his greatest hits. Songs: Only the Lonely, Dream Baby, The Comedians, Ooby Dooby, Leah, Running Scared, In Dreams, Crying, Candyman, Go Go Go, Mean Woman Blues, It's Over, Oh Pretty Woman, Dream You, Blue Bayou, Claudette.

Director: NA
Cast: Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. Lang, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, J.D. Souther, Jennifer Warnes
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD & DTS 5.1, English Digital Stereo; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 17 chapters; Not Rated; 64 min.; $24.99; street date 11/9/99.
Supplements: Musician Biographies; Liner Notes; Rehearsal Photos.
Purchase: DVD | CD album

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A+/D+

Is there anything quite as wonderful as the late-in-life comeback? Well, maybe, but it can be awfully sweet to see someone talented but largely unappreciated reenter the public eye and get some credit for all of their work.

Such an occurrence took place in 1987 when Roy Orbison left the "where are they now" file and recaptured a place in the imagination of the music-loving public. I wasn't yet born when Orbison completed his run of hits in the earlier Sixties, so even though I was (and remain) much more knowledgeable about music than most folks my age, he seemed like a forgotten relic to me. What did I know? "Oh, Pretty Woman" and Linda Ronstadt's version of "Blue Bayou" about summed it up.

I received a more appropriate introduction to Orbison by association. When the Black and White Night program was filmed and broadcast in late 1987, I was a huge Springsteen fan (still am, actually). Bruce performed in this show - along with another big favorite of mine, Elvis Costello - and that was good enough for me! As such, I picked up a copy of the B&WN videotape and give it a shot.

Somewhat surprisingly, I found it to be pretty darned good, and not just because of Bruce and Elvis. Indeed, their presence here was almost strictly as sidemen; sure, they get a little more action front and center than do most of the other big names, but they nonetheless remained clearly secondary to Orbison - this was his show.

And it was his songs that won me over. No, I won't pretend that I became some giant Orbison fan and he's on my list of all-time favorites; my Orbison collection consists of B&WN and that's likely where it will stay because this sampling of songs sate my Orbison appetite. However, since Orbison was someone in whom I'd had no interest at all prior to this show, the fact that it's stayed in my collection for more than a decade and continues to offer me a lot of listening pleasure has to mean something.

Indeed, B&WN is a virtually perfect program for a casual Orbison fan as well as being a must have for more dedicated followers. Of the seventeen songs, there's not a dog in the bunch; of course, I find some less scintillating than others, but there's no tune on this DVD that I consistently skip.

The best songs are absolutely fantastic. "(All I Can Do Is) Dream You" remains my favorite of the bunch; it offers a solid example of perfect pop song construction, including a tremendously efficient but effective little guitar solo from legend James Burton. If that tune can get a slug like me to dancing about the living room, it must really percolate!

Other highlights include epic ballads like "Crying", "Running Scared", and "It's Over". As much as I love "Dream You", it's these songs that really demonstrate what set Orbison apart from the crowd: his tremendous operatic voice. He really soared with his vocals and made his music something unique and thrilling; many a goosebump has been launched when Roy hits a high note. Amazingly, his voice lost none of its effectiveness and range over the 25 years between his heyday and the recording of this program; indeed, Roy - who died barely a year later of a heart attack just prior to the release of a new album and just after the success of his Traveling Wilburys collaboration - was one of the few artists who went out on top commercially and artistically. Usually a "late career" program like B&WN wouldn't make for a very good indicator of an artist's true talent because time has worn them down, but that's not the case here; between Orbison's vital vocals and the tremendous backing band, this program documents an absolutely stellar performance.

The DVD:

And it makes for a helluva DVD as well. Black and White Night is offered on a single-sided, dual-layered DVD that shows the program in its original fullscreen TV ratio of 1.33:1; as such, the program is not enhanced for 16X9 sets. As strongly implied by the title of the show, it's in black and white, so color quality is no issue here! One issue that does exist, however, is the nature of the production itself. Black and white was clearly chosen to give the show a retro feel, and other filmmaker decisions echo that move. For example, handheld cameras are occasionally utilized to provide a slight "documentary" feel; this usually occurs for crowd shots (which are purposefully grainier and fuzzier than most band shots) but it also sometimes happens when the focus is on the musicians. Also, some apparently artificial flaws have been added to the image; I can't say for certain that these are contrived faults, but I'm pretty sure they are just because they seem too "systematic" to be real.

These factors plus a few others - some bright white lighting that occasionally creates a soft edge to the image, for example - conspire to make my ability to rate the quality of the picture more difficult. It's the old question of intent versus pure appearance; a DVD transfer may perfectly represent the original image, but if it still looks terrible, should I rate the picture as an "A" (since the transfer itself is flawless) or as an "F" (since it looks so bad)? I usually try to compromise, but I tend to favor the actual appearance over the intention.

Ultimately, this issue isn't all that important for B&WN because despite the various production choices, it still looks very good. Sharpness seems slightly soft at times, but never to a point of distraction and it's usually quite well-defined. As one would expect, black levels are very strong and deep; the images appear to be well replicated. I disliked the artificial print flaws, but they're infrequent enough that they didn't distract me too badly.

To be honest, in many ways I don't really care how the picture of B&WN looks because it's much more a program to listen to than to watch. As musically talented as he was, Roy wasn't exactly the most scintillating live performer to grace the stage; geez, with those sunglasses on, I'm not even sure if he blinks! Orbison spends most of the show front and center at his microphone. The filmmakers do a pretty nice job of cutting between Roy and the others so that the show works surprisingly well visually, but it's not a production that offers much for you to watch.

Aurally, however, is where this sucker really delivers. As I've already discussed, it's a fantastic performance of some classic songs, and they've never sounded better. B&WN offers two 5.1 tracks: one in Dolby Digital and one in DTS. It also includes a standard two-channel stereo mix. In 5.1, the music is wonderfully enveloping and involving. This is a true surround mix, as instruments and voice emanate from all five channels. I'd found some 5.1 tracks for concerts to be disappointing because they only included crowd noise and maybe a little percussion from the rear channels, but that's not the case here; while the focus remains the front three speakers, the rears kick in as nearly equal partners. Some crowd noise pops up back there, but they're largely reserved for musical content and they sound fantastic.

I think some people frown upon this form of audio track because it doesn't accurately replicate the concert experience. In a concert hall, they argue, you'd hear all of the instruments from the front, so while stereo makes sense, surround does not. My response? I'm not in a concert hall, dude - I'm at home! My feeling is that I couldn't care less how true the experience is to "real life," as it were; if the sound can be enhanced by other means that will make the whole thing more exciting, why not do it? No home format will ever adequately replicate the excitement and spark of a live performance anyway - it's simply impossible - so why not trade "authenticity" for the strengths of the chosen method?

In its divine utilization of the 5.1 capabilities, the audio for B&WN does this; it takes the advantages of the home surround environment and neatly makes the music work for them. Don't think, however, that this track is all about surround gimmickry; I don't award "A+" ratings just because the track shows off my rear speakers. The quality of B&WN lives up to the high level of audio involvement. It's an absolutely pristine recording that captures every nuance of the music beautifully; while the discrete nature of the 5.1 sound lets us more easily isolate individual instruments, it's the high quality of the audio that lets us appreciate them.

And now for the potentially controversial portion of the review. As I noted, B&WN contains both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks. That puts it in the almost-unique position of allowing a reviewer to flip between tracks and easily compare the two. Although I'd read other reviews that indicated the DTS track was much louder than the DD one, that wasn't the case. I ran into that problem between the DD and DTS DVDs of Saving Private Ryan, but I discerned no volume difference between the two tracks on my copy; when I flipped back and forth, neither seemed louder than the other.

In fact, if I didn't see the indicator on my receiver change whenever I altered the format, I never would have noticed any differences between the DD and DTS tracks. While I gave DTS the nod in my SPR review, I didn't discover any advantages that one track held over the other on this DVD. To my ears, at least, the DD and DTS tracks appeared virtually identical, and as such were equally wonderful. In the future, I'll listen to the DTS track just because my receiver has that capability and I don't get to use it very often, but I won't do so because I feel that the DTS version is superior; I feel that the Dolby Digital audio for B&WN is just as good. (For the record, the stereo mix also sounded good, but if you want to listen to it, remember to turn off your surround decoder! It sounds terrible if processed through that mechanism.)

Something unusual for a music title is the small complement of supplements on the Black and White Night DVD. Oh, there's not much here, but something is better than nothing. The disc includes brief biographies of most of the musicians; for everyone other than Orbison, these take up one screen, and while they're very basic, they're nice to have nonetheless. A much more extensive history is given for Roy himself; it's still pretty cursory but it at least provides a solid basic biography for the man.

In addition, a two-screen text of liner notes from Roy's son appears, as well as about 35 still photos from the rehearsals and from the show itself. Both are decent but unexceptional. Also, good subtitles are available; I checked them on occasion, and they seemed complete and accurate.

I don't know if this formally falls into the category of "extras," but I believe that this DVD is the first time that the full performance from this show has been made available on home video. My videotape omitted two songs that show up on the DVD: "Blue Bayou" and "Claudette". That VHS program was also edited differently so that "Dream You" closed the show and ran over the credits; here, "Oh, Pretty Woman" finishes the proceedings and the credits are accompanied by brief mentions from the star artists on the program about what Orbison means to them. I don't know if this version represents the original cable broadcast which was then edited for sale or if this is the first time any of this material has been made available, but it's a nice move for the producers to restore the entire performance.

Overall, this DVD is a tremendously classy production that seems to fall into that "labor of love" category. A lot of work must have gone into editing the program back to its full length, and even more effort must have been exerted to create the fantastic 5.1 audio track. The producers easily could have simply reissued the existing video on DVD and left it at that, but they instead made sure that this DVD exists as a definitive document of the show, and it does so tremendously well. Hopefully this level of care will spark additional sales and other DVD producers will learn that quality sells; I, for one, wouldn't have bought it if it hadn't received the 5.1 makeover, and I'll bet a lot of others feel the same way.

Whatever the case, this DVD is a no-brainer. If you have any interest at all in Roy Orbison, you should add this DVD to your collection. If you're not interested in him, buy it anyway and you'll soon learn to appreciate him. Orbison's not now - and never will be - my favorite musical artist, but this is easily the best music DVD I currently own.

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