FREEBIRD: THE MOVIE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, Steve Gaines, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Leon
Wilkeson, Gary Rossington
Director: Jeff Waxman
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles: (English close-captioning, great for sing-alongs!)
Video: full-frame, color
Features: Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: December 18, 2001
me, there's nothing freer than a bird, you know, just flying wherever he wants
to go. And, I don't know, that's
what this country is all about, being free.
I think everyone wants to be a free bird." - Ronnie Van
(1996) is an anachronistic entry into a rare and dying movie genre - the rock
concert documentary. The 1960-70's
used to produce a lot of them, but with the ascension of MTV and its spin-offs,
one rarely sees these sort of movies in theatres anymore.
Seemingly, only the rarest of bands are worth the effort anymore - Lynyrd
Skynyrd is one such band.
have to admit, I was not initially into the signature southern sound of Lynyrd
Skynyrd. Their songs just could not
leave an impressionable mark squeaking from the tiny speakers of my poor old
childhood pocket radio. But years
later, older and wiser, after I had watched Freebird
for the first time, I quickly changed my tune.
Seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd perform, even if through concert footage, is a
revelation and an entirely new experience.
It made me realize just what an exceptional musical group they truly
Skynyrd was an unusually large rock group.
Aside from lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, there were three(!) lead
guitarists, a bassist, a pianist(!!), and of course a drummer, not to mention
the Honkettes, a trio of female backup singers who performed in all the concerts
included in Freebird.
Moreover, Lynyrd Skynyrd's musicians were all seriously talented, and at
the vanguard of the band's legendary three-guitar sonic attack was Allen
Collins. While singer Ronnie Van
Zant was the heart of the band, the playing by Collins (and later on, Steve
Gaines, too) gave it the vital energy and head-rushing ferocity that made Lynyrd
Skynyrd such a thrill to witness in concert.
One band member, in reminiscence, recalls of their 1976 British concert,
"It was Todd Rundgren, Hot Tuna, 10 CC, Clearwater Revival, the Rolling
Stones, and us. And we blew the
Stones off the stage."
is what real rock 'n' roll is all about! While
other musical acts of the 1970's experimented with rock opera, disco, glam rock,
or other weird fads, Lynyrd Skynyrd stayed true to their roots.
They sang about personal experiences and hard livin'.
Their music was a fusion of guitar rock with a twist of honky-tonk and a
heavy dose of rhythm and blues. Live,
their concerts were electrifying, sort of like KISS but without the
pyrotechnics. These concert
performances delivered a storm of raw energy that their studio recordings could
only hint at. In a few short
recording years, from 1973-77, Lynyrd Skynyrd had created a body of music that
would define southern rock and would eventually earn the band its reputation as
the penultimate southern rock band.
starts off with the song Workin' for MCA.
Anyone who is only acquainted with the band through radio broadcasts will
be in for a treat here! Right from the get-go, it's obvious this band is all about
the music. This footage comes from
a 1976 Knebworth Fair performance in England.
Two smaller concerts in 1976-77 from the US also provide footage.
The concert footage is occasionally interspersed with interviews or
photographs. Some of this material
is new, while some dates back to the 1970's.
Lastly, only one song from a Bill Graham's 1977 concert is used for the
movie's grand finale. But what a song it is! Lynyrd
Skynyrd traditionally opened their sets with the Confederate jingle Dixie,
and they liked to close with what has become arguably the greatest classic rock
anthem from the 1970's - Freebird,
this documentary's namesake.
the film, the band members blast through fifteen songs.
A sixteenth song, Simple Man, is also played with the closing credits over a montage
of concert and super 8 footage, so watch the film to the very end!
Many of the songs are among the band's most familiar tunes, often
performed in extended versions, too. One
of my favorites is the rip-roaring Call Me
the Breeze. What's
Your Name also gets a rousing rendition, as does a blistering cover of Jimmy
Rodgers' "T" for Texas.
Sweet Home Alabama is played
near the end; I think the state of Alabama should just drop all pretenses and
make this classic tune its state song already!
Really, why resist?
Lynyrd Skynyrd sounds awesome in Freebird.
Their great camaraderie with one another and their obvious joy of
performing really shines through, especially in the Knebworth Fair concert that
provides much of the footage used in Freebird. On that day, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in broad daylight.
The band members looked relaxed, as if they had just casually strolled in
off the streets. Ronnie Van Zant
did not bother to wear shoes, which he often preferred not to do anyways so that
he could feel the warmth of the stage while singing.
The band looks like it's just having so much fun that it's practically
infectious; you will inevitably end up on your feet, immersed in the raw and
powerful music, just like the 250,000 fans on that day.
All this without the need for dancers or wacky costumes or fancy light
shows or rock posturing, either!
film's closing song is, of course, Freebird.
As Lynyrd Skynyrd closed its performances with a rendition of Freebird,
so does this film. It is a lyrical
ballad that soars into one of the most awe-inspiring guitar finales in rock
music. I am convinced that
listening to Freebird once a day is
the perfect tonic for whatever ails you!
the concert comes to an end, so the documentary ends on a melancholy note.
To the tune of Dixie, super 8 home footage is shown of the band boarding a charter
plane. The date was October, 20,
1977, and this home movie was being shot by one of the band's members.
The band was just getting started on a fresh tour, and the energy level
and excitement of everyone involved was clearly palpable.
Spirits were high as band members played cards or smiled for the camera.
The last scene we see is a view from within the cockpit as the plane
takes off. And then, Freebird
Skynyrd's fans know of the band's ultimate destiny. Many years may have passed since the band's glory days, but
their music will endure forever.
the low rating above, this transfer really is
a top-notch job. There are no
glaring compression artifacts or edge enhancements anywhere. The image is stable and doesn't shimmer or break up.
The source for the transfer, however, is another matter.
While the picture has a fair amount of scratches and debris, these
defects are entirely inherent to the older footage, not the DVD transfer or the
newer framing documentary material itself.
Much of the recordings are derived from old videotape and sometimes film
of the concerts. Two of the
concerts were shot on low-contrast, black and white video, with some video
swiggles and a washed-out image. The
other two are in color but can be a little blurry in extreme long shots.
The picture during the videotape images will intermittently leave behind
a ghost tracing from sun glare; it's par for the course with videotape,
unfortunately. Sometimes it looks
good, sometimes it doesn't. That's
okay, you really can't expect too much from live concert footage older than
twenty-five years. Coincidentally,
the new interviews or photographs, by comparison, look great.
really, who cares? Rock bands don't
need to look pretty. You can see
Lynyrd Skynyrd just fine. It's the
music that counts!
is what it's all about! Lynyrd
Skynyrd rocks. Their songs sound
even better live than they do in a studio!
How about that? The
documentary's audio mix was recorded in a THX studio, and it is presented in
Dolby Digital 2.0. True, the mix
doesn't create a true surround sound environment, but it is still crisp and
energetic. With concert footage
this old, one usually has to tolerate some hiss or crackles, but the soundtrack
is superb and very clean. The
performances are live, so they aren't 100% perfect, but I still defy anyone
watching Freebird to resist the temptation to play air guitar or to dance to
the rhythm at some point!
has a louder mix than the Tribute Tour
documentary, but both are just fine. Real
rock 'n' roll may be a gravely endangered genre nowadays, having been supplanted
by rap, hip-hop, pretty boy bands, or female pop singers with skimpy attire.
But, music such as Lynyrd Skynyrd's is immortal and will outlast all
these current music fads.
missing are subtitles and more chapter stops.
The close-captioning makes up for the lack of subtitles, but not all TVs
can display close-captions. So,
English subtitles would still have been nice for fans who want to sing along.
Also, Freebird could have used
more chapter stops than just six! What's all this silly fast-forwarding and rewinding just to
get to a favorite tune? Lastly, I
didn't care much for the design-challenged main menu, which is slow and confusing to navigate.
terms of actual extra features, there is only one, but it is a whopper - the
documentary Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour.
It is a 94 minute documentary chronicling a tribute tour for the band and
its music ten years after their last performance.
the way, you'll get to hear six complete songs as well as segments of many other
songs. While the documentary shows
a lot of concert footage, it is more interested in looking at the lives of the
people behind the tribute and the original band.
The film starts with a biography on the early years of singer Ronnie Van
Zant. Narrated by Charles Daniels,
the documentary unveils the initial conception of the band, tracing the band's
roots to Jacksonville, Florida and a lucky accident one day on a baseball field
back in 1964. Also, for fans who
may have wondered about the origin of the band's unusual name, it was originally
the Noble Five. The name was
changed after band members got too much grief from an annoying high school gym
teacher about their long hair.
of the earliest concert footage comes from an Earth Day appearance in 1971.
Other footage offer glimpses from the concerts covered in Freebird.
However, the majority of the footage draws from the 1987 tribute tour
itself. The tribute band is
comprised of some old faces and some new ones.
One old face is former guitarist Ed King, who had retired from the band
twelve years prior. His reasons for having done so are never directly stated but
can be inferred from his introduction to the song That Smell. It's nice
to see him back, even if he looks like a very jovial toymaker; nevertheless, he
can still plays a really mean guitar lick!
Of the new members, the most significant one is Johnny Van Zant as lead
singer. He is the spitting image of
his older brother Ronnie and sings very much like him as well.
Overall, the tribute band is quite excellent, although its members
acknowledge that despite some familiar faces, they are a world apart from the
original Lynyrd Skynyrd. Still, if
you close your eyes and listen, you really can
accept the illusion that Ronnie Van Zant and his buddies are back on-stage again
for another performance.
documentary also ends with a performance of Freebird.
Out of respect for his brother, Johnny Van Zant does not sing.
The song is played out as an instrumental over a montage of images from
Lynyrd Skynyrd's concerts. It is a