Released by: MPI
Released on: January 14th, 2014.
Director: Josh Johnson
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You’d think that a documentary exploring the history of a home video format, particularly one that isn’t particularly ‘relevant’ to the masses anymore, would be boring but Josh Johnson’s documentary, Rewind This!, does a great job of making the case for the historical and cultural importance of the VHS tape and the industry that it spawned.
The movie begins, as you’d expect, with a quick rundown of the format war that happened decades before HD-DVD lost to Blu-ray. When VHS eventually won out to Betamax it took one enterprising capitalist to license some movies from Fox, who had nothing to lose with this deal, and sooner rather than later a market emerged for home video rentals. From there, it was only a matter of time until the ‘sell through’ market developed and people were buying movies to own to watch as often as they wanted to.
As both the rental and sell through markets evolved and soon exploded, stores needed content. As such, more and more titles were released and at the same time, the cost of video cameras came down to the point where anyone who wanted to make a movie could do just that. It didn’t mean the movie would be any good, but soon every would-be independent filmmaker around was trying to his dream a reality. Of course, eventually VHS would give way to DVD and then Blu-ray and the technology ceased to be a viable commercial format but the impact that the boom years of the VHS explosion can and are still felt today.
As the documentary follows this basic timeline we get interviews with various people who were either involved in all of this from a business perspective or who were and still are simply huge fans of the format. The reasons for the enduring fandom are various – some are hipsters with an eye for the ironic, others appreciate the fact that there were more titles released on VHS than any other format and that because of that there’s just way more obscurities and oddities out there that have yet to be reissued. There are cases where the only existing copies of some of these odd low budget movies are old, crummy tapes.
Of course, the documentary also covers some of the more cultish titles, Deadly Prey and the movies of Chester Turner for example, but lets the interviewees talk up their appreciation of the garish cover art that often sold the sizzle rather than the steak, and what it was like walking into rental shops with massive selections. Industry types like Don May Jr. of Synapse Films, Lloyd Kaufman of Troma and David Gregory of Severin Films talk about how the VHS movement affected them while filmmakers like Frank Henenlotter and certifiably crazy David "The Rock" Nelson discuss how the format allowed their work to get out to larger audiences (Henenlotter notes that his titles did so well on VHS that he bought an apartment with the earnings). Film historian types from the Alamo Drafthouse are on hand to talk about some of their favorites and why they appreciate the format and various hardcore VHS collector types discuss their collections and how and why they wound up doing what they do. We hear from former bootleggers (including the late Andy Copp, to whom the movie is dedicated, the late Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video and James Bialkowski of Vagrancy Films) about the grey market scene, about tape traders who helped get some of the more obscure movies out to other collectors and we learn of the impact that the emergence of porn had on the industry, both in North America and Japan. In fact, the movie spends a fair bit of time in Japan talking about how the introduction of VHS lead to the birth of ‘V-Cinema’ and how many of those low budget straight to video quickies were quite profitable and would wind up birthing the careers of plenty of people both in front of and behind the camera.
As the documentary comes to a close, there is discussion of the advent of streaming, how the impending doom hovering above physical media sales will mean that the studios will regain control over what we watch and how we watch it. It started when Blockbuster came in and shutdown so many of the locally owned independent rental stores and sort of snowballed from there and in a sense, this would bring things back to the way they were before VHS did what it did. It’s a bitter sweet way to finish the movie off but also completely fitting. Amusing, interesting and entertaining, Rewind This! works really well. It introduces us to an interesting cast of characters, does a great job of exploring the history of its subject and effectively makes its case by explaining how and why all of this was and remains so important in the first place.
Rewind This! arrives on DVD framed at 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen with a lot of the fullframe footage properly windowboxed (so expect bars on the left and right side intermittently throughout the documentary). As this was culled together from various sources, many of them old analogue tapes, the quality is a bit all over the place but the newly shot footage is perfectly nice looking and even most of the archival clips are fine. Some of the tape rolls and tracking lines that pop up in the clips add to the vibe that the filmmakers were obviously going for and they don’t really hurt anything at all.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix on the disc is fine, but again, sometimes the source material shows its limitations. The score is spread out nicely and that’s where you’ll notice most of the channel separation. The dialogue is properly balanced and stays in the front of the mix. This isn’t a particularly enveloping mix but it doesn’t need to be, it suits the movie just fine. There are no alternate language or subtitle options provided though the segments that are spoken in Japanese have forced English subtitles that pop up on the screen as needed.
Extras kicks off with an audio commentary track from director Josh Johnson, producer Carolee Mitchell and cinematographer/editor Christopher Palmer. The track is an interesting mix in that it covers what went into creating this documentary, how the various participants came to be involved in the picture and things like editing choices but so too does it cover each of the commentator’s own personal history with the VHS format. It’s an interesting track that offers up some interesting insight into the creative process behind the film as well as yet more interesting tidbits about VHS history as well.
Outside of that, we get a selection of seventeen extended/deleted scenes that clock in at over one hundred and ten minutes in length. The titles of the clips are pretty self-explanatory – here’s what you’ll find…
Cut Animation / Artwork / Everything Is Terrible! In Austin / Hunting For VHS / Laserdisc / Music Video for "Where I Came From" By Beaujolais / Nostalgia / Ownership / Physical Vs. Digital / Push-Ups With David "The Rock" Nelson / Remix Culture / Rental Industry / The Return Of VHS / Shot On Video / Stickers / VHS Day: October 1, 2010 / Video Panic
Highlights from the unused footage include Don May Jr. talking about his experiences in the Laserdisc industry, David Gregory’s explanation of the Video Nasties and the panic that ensued in the UK when the VHS boom exploded, the discussion of the importance of cover art and interestingly enough the segment that discusses the different stickers that were placed on tapes and cases and what they mean.
Rounding out the extras on the disc is a trailer for the feature, animated menus and chapter selection.
The Final Word:
Rewind This! is simultaneously a look at the economic and cultural impact that the VHS explosion had around the world and a love letter to the format that really launched the home video revolution as we know it today. The documentary is both informative and entertaining and it does a great job of showcasing not just the importance of the format but also the fun that was inherent in ‘being there’ when it all took off. Loaded with some great extra features, the DVD from MPI is a good one and based on the strength of the presentation and the feature, it’s easy to recommend.