Artisan // 1996 // 197 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // March 6th, 2002
By 1977, with only four years of recording behind them, Lynyrd Skynyrd had produced a body of songs that would become rock and roll classics.
When their chartered plane crashed on October 20 of that year, they were entering the most creative, exciting phase of their career.
We'll never know what could have been. We can only look back and imagine.
Or so we learn in the opening moments of Freebird: the Movie. I can't really claim to be a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a musical group that came out of Jacksonville, Florida only to hit it big with songs like "Freebird," "Gimme Back My Bullets," and "Sweet Home Alabama." The band featured a crunching blend of three guitars, lyrics for the "every man" and a grass roots sort of approach to rock and roll. They weren't a typical power metal band that was becoming popular during the '70s, but it was because of this that they stood out. The fact that someone like me, a true non-fan (I can't say I dislike or hate them, though) can recognize most of the songs contained on this DVD should be a testament to Lynyrd Skynyrd's staying power. Of course, if I hear "Freebird" on the radio one more time I'm setting myself on fire, but that's neither here nor there. The band's glory days came to a sudden and tragic end when their chartered plane crashed and killed guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, their manager (whose name escapes me as I write this), and lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt, who was the heart and soul of the band.
Artisan has brought Freebird: the Movie to DVD and paired it with the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour which features the remnants of the band getting back together ten years after the tragic accident. On one hand, I think fans will be happy that this package is available. On the other hand, the fans might not be.
Freebird: the Movie consists of a concert, filmed at Oakland's Day on the Green in 1977, interspersed with various interviews and home movie footage of the band. The song list is what you would expect from a Lynyrd Skynyrd show and includes the tunes you would expect from the band. It's actually quite a rousing performance and it will definitely please a true fan.
Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour represents the band ten years after the crash and follows their start in Jacksonville up until the point of the crash. Narrated by Charlie Daniels, the documentary also focuses on the band after the tragedy that had hit them. Johnny Van Zandt, Carol Bristow, and Dale Krantz Rossington step in to replace the band members lost in the crash, while Randall Hill plays in place of guitarist Allen Collins, who had been paralyzed in an automobile accident some years before. (Collins is actually in this film, however, as he was backstage for the performance.)
This is one of those "damned if you do, damned if you don't" reviews for me. On one hand no matter what I say to criticize this DVD is going to be put down by Lynyrd Skynyrd's plethora of fans. And I can understand that. I'm fanatic about the type of music I enjoy as well, I just don't happen to enjoy Lynyrd Skynyrd. As I mentioned above, however, I can honestly say that Freebird: the Movie is going to appeal to the fans, and how about we just let it go, okay? The Oakland performance contains a lot of raw energy that captures everything that Lynyrd Skynyrd was about. Enjoy it. I can objectively admit that the band had talent and that what happened to them was a tragedy, but there's no telling what could have happened. Maybe they would have gone on to have spectacular careers and created a legacy and a futuristic society might have built their civilization around Skynyrd's music akin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. But could we also at least admit that, conceivably, the band could have self-destructed under the alcoholism and Van Zandt's penchant for getting into bar fights? It's certainly happened to better bands than Lynyrd Skynyrd. Freebird: the Movie depicts a decent concert, though hardly the greatest I've seen on home video (that's reserved for The Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense). Additionally the "behind the scenes" vignettes, unfortunately, are nothing that I hadn't already seen on a VH1 "Behind the Music" special on Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they also break up the ebb and flow of the music.
Both concerts are presented in a full frame version, and I wish I could tell fans that Artisan restored both the video and audio aspects of these movies. Sadly, however, very little attention was paid to the transfer, and we have what can only be described as a disappointing effort. I'm not really sure what I can tell Skynyrd fans out there. On one hand this is probably going to be the only way Freebird: the Movie is released. On the other hand, Artisan really bungled it. Graininess and faded colors abound, and you probably don't want to hear about the lifeless sound field, but I feel I should warn you about it. Special attention also needs to be paid to the shoddy menu system that Artisan built for this DVD. A normal concert DVD would probably have chapter breaks for every song and an easily navigable menu. Instead, Artisan provides five chapter breaks for each film and the top (and only) menu has the various breaks on a semi-circle that makes it very difficult for you to figure out what you're doing. Did the menu look cool? Sure. But what good is "cool" if it just doesn't work? Words can not describe how annoyed I was by this.
I understand the need for the band to reform, but the performance on the Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour is sadly lackluster and lacks the energy of Freebird: the Movie. And let's face facts here -- in the words of Dr. Evil, "Nobody enjoys an aging hipster." The best years of this band are far behind them at this point and while they certainly give it a commendable try, they just fail at recapturing the magic.
After watching Freebird: the Movie, maybe I gained a bit more of an appreciation for the band. This DVD is something I would recommend for true fans only, however, as Artisan has done a pretty crummy job of bringing it to our favorite shiny little discs.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, their fans, and Freebird: the Movie are set free. Artisan, however, is to be heavily reprimanded for poor representation of what should be a definitive film for Lynyrd Skynyrd's fans. The person who created the so-called menu for this DVD gets a jar of spiders over his head.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 197 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Lynyrd Skynyrd Official Site