OnDVD: New releases spotlight Green, Rollins

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 1:00am

Acclaimed director Robert Mugge has excelled as a music documentarian over the past three decades. His productions have profiled both famous and obscure performers in numerous genres. The long list of exceptional Mugge productions include a pair of 1980s works on Al Green and Sonny Rollins that have just been reissued on DVD.

Gospel According to Al Green and Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus (both Acorn Media) represent the finest filmed presentations ever done on these two giants of American music, and each blend insights and splendid, rare performance footage in a manner that distinguishes them from basic concert or documentary items.

Al Green had made the transition from soul matinee idol to hard-working minister by 1984, the year Mugge originally filmed Gospel According to Al Green. He talks extensively about the events that led to his abandoning that soul career, and also discusses the problems he experienced in establishing and maintaining his Memphis church.

For those skeptical about Green’s conversion, the DVD includes a marvelous example pastor Green, as he presents a rich sermon that combines biblical references, personal stories and occasional song inserts. The package also has several scenes from his church services, which sometimes extend for hours on Sunday mornings and afternoons.

But the DVD also showcases the masterful Green secular style, with excerpts from performances featuring magnificent renditions of classic hits like “Let’s Stay Together” as well as equally strong gospel numbers such as “Amazing Grace.”

Green addresses the demands of both stardom and the ministry with equal fervor, explaining that each demands an intensity and commitment that can be draining and debilitating.

Through a nearly 90-minute interview, viewers see sides of Green he’s never before or since revealed. The set is completed with the inclusion of the original theatrical trailer and Mugge’s reflections on the project.

As for Sonny Rollins, he began playing the saxophone as an 11-year-old and was working with Thelonious Monk before he was 18. His soaring, relentless solos and integrity as a performer have made him a beloved figure.

Rollins also has often walked away from the music scene when he felt his playing was getting stale or predictable, even at times when his work was extremely popular. Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus was filmed in 1986, only a year after he’d started recording and performing again following almost nine years out of the spotlight.

His DVD includes far more comments and conversation from Rollins (who’s never sought the spotlight) about his background and interests than usual. He goes into very specific detail about the importance of spirituality in his life and music, while dissecting his approach to improvisation and performance.

A song’s melody has always been what has most attracted Rollins to a composition, and his ability to hear alternative directions in a tune while exploring it and his experiments with song structure are displayed in wonderful footage of him teaming with a Japanese symphony orchestra in Tokyo and a smaller group in New York.

While not extensively or exclusively a concert film, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus amply examines the Rollins musical method, while also giving fans vital insight into his interests and life away from the bandstand.

TV on DVD

The six-disc boxed set Columbo Mystery Movie Collection: 1990 (Universal), which is being released this week, has special meaning for all fans of this classic detective show. These six films represent some of the final productions done in the manner of the original Columbo works of the ‘70s.

During that era, the Columbo cases were made as two-hour titles designed to fill part of a multi-show rotation. ABC revived Columbo in 1989 after almost 11 years off the air, but would soon change the pattern and begin making more compact 90-minute editions.

The episodes include one with guest villain Patrick McGoohan (who also directed) that is excellent and another written by Steven Bochco that is noteworthy. But overall by this time the series, though still good, wasn’t nearly as entertaining or stylish as it was during the ‘70s.

ABC faithfully continued producing periodic editions of Columbo until 2003. Sadly, they passed a couple of years ago on what would have been a grand finale episode. Now due to medical reasons, Columbo fans won’t get a chance to see Peter Falk in the role one last time. But at least this new set, as well as future collections, will keep alive the memory of a landmark television series.

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