Judge Gordon Sullivan hasn't figured out how to rewind his DVDs yet.
An exploding industry without rules!
I was an early lover of DVD. I liked seeing films in their original aspect ratios, and the extras fueled a love for movies that continues to this day. Then one day I picked up the then-new DVD of Night of the Demons, which had been a favorite of mine back in the 99-cent VHS days. I was excited that it was re-mastered and in the proper aspect ratio. In the first few minutes, however, I realized that it looked wrong. Sure it was re-mastered, and the colors were accurate, but without the boxy look and faded colors of VHS, it just wasn't the film I remembered. That's when I realized how important VHS was to me. I never got into collecting, but I kept an eye on the way that VHS, despite its age, wouldn't die. Not even in the era of YouTube and Netflix will the cassette tape vanish. Collectors are still out there extolling the virtues of the format, and Rewind This! offers a pretty solid overview of the format, the passion it elicits, and those who are behind the resurgence of the format.
Facts of the Case
Rewind This! is a delightful medley of several sources. We get talking-head style interviews with a bunch of passionate enthusiasts. That includes everyone from amateur collectors, to sellers, to filmmakers and distributors. It's an impressive roster of colorful characters, and no major names are left out. Then, there are clips from various VHS sources. We get everything from advertising promos to excerpts from direct-to-VHS movies. The film alternates between segments that focus on the overall VHS history/culture and those that go into depth on a particular producer, collector, or phenomenon.
Rewind This! is a perfect documentary; an amazing blend of historical information and personal passion, with a set of well-chosen clips that will entice newcomers and enthrall the experienced. That's really the strength of the documentary, the way it imparts all its information without feeling either too boring or too scattered. The film opens on a shot-on-VHS trip to go VHS hunting in Texas, and from there we move on to the VHS/Beta wars, the different kinds of covers, and the recent resurgence in the format. The talking heads are all interesting, and many of them are interviewed along with their collections or in other non-standard locations. Many names will be familiar to those who grew up on VHS—Frank Henenlotter, Charles Band, Lloyd Kaufman—and though many will not, the unknown enthusiasts convey their knowledge and passion effectively.
Then, of course, there are the clips. Some of them will be familiar to many viewers. Of course, Jane Fonda helped sell VHS with her famous exercise video. Some, however, are pretty obscure. Before watching Rewind This!, I didn't know that Bubba Smith released his own workout video, and the excerpts seen here are pretty convincing. We also see parts of an independent shot-on-VHS Western, a ninja flick from the late eighties, and more obvious choices like Frankenhooker. There's a good mix of the obscure and the well-known, so VHS-lovers and those born after the format's demise will be satisfied.
The DVD itself is great. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is solid—contemporary material is clean and bright, and all the glorious artifacts of VHS are there when the film turns to clips. The film isn't really a visual feast, but the presentation is watchable and serves the material well. The Dolby 5.1 Surround audio is similarly good for the film. The talking heads are all perfectly audible, and the mix with the clips is well done.
Perhaps ironically for a DVD about VHS culture, this set has a good amount of extras. Things kick off with a commentary by director Josh Johnson, producer Carolee Mitchell, and DP/editor Christopher Palmer that reveals a lot of the stories behind securing interviews and their enthusiasm for the project. The bulk of the extras, though, is the hour or so of additional interview footage. Cut just like the feature, these are segments that didn't make the movie, from pieces on remix culture to video panic. They're as interesting as some of the stuff that made the cut. There's also some bonus animation and a music video.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of the stuff at the end loses me a bit, when the participants are asked to talk about non-physical distribution. There's a lot of overlapping talk about the rise of streaming services, and the focus shifts a bit too far from VHS for me. However, it's a small sin in an otherwise excellent presentation. I also wish we could have heard more from Troma's Lloyd Kaufman. Obviously stuff got cut and decisions had to be made, but Troma is one of the few distributors who has survived into the DVD era and beyond. Still, these are quibbles more than anything else, the observations of someone who knows a bit more than the average viewer about these things.
Another thing that viewers should be aware of is that pornography (or "adult video" as it's called in the documentary) is a huge part of the story of the rise of VHS. Rewind This! treats the subject fairly, interviewing producers and showing clips from their products. So, expect some sex and nudity in the film. It doesn't predominate by any stretch, but it's definitely there.
Rewind This! is a great tour down memory lane, for those with fond memories of clamshell cases and rewinding video cassettes. Though the best days of the format are likely behind it, this documentary makes the case for the technology's greatness. For those who didn't grow up with those (in)conveniences, the film is a good place to look for the nascent development of what would become YouTube and torrents. Before we had either, there were bootleg VHS traders and those making their own custom mixes of weird stuff on video. Rewind This! documents that moment while it's still fresh in some people's minds, ensuring that even if VHS the technology dies, the culture it spawned will live on, even if only in video.
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