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FREEBIRD:  THE MOVIE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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
Studio: Artisan
Features: Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: December 18, 2001

"To 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 Zant

Film *** 1/2

Freebird: the Movie (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.

I 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 were.

Lynyrd 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."

This 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.

Freebird 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.

In 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?

Regardless, 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!

The 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!

As 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 fades away.

Lynyrd 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.

Video ** 1/2

Despite 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.

But, really, who cares?  Rock bands don't need to look pretty.  You can see Lynyrd Skynyrd just fine.  It's the music that counts!

Audio *** 1/2

This 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!

Freebird 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.

Features *** 1/2

What's 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.

In 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.

Along 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.

Some 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.

This 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 fitting conclusion.

Summary:

Sweet Home Alabama may be Lynyrd Skynyrd's sole top ten hit, but it is merely one of many tunes that have since become rock classics from this penultimate southern rock band.  As a live rock act, Lynyrd Skynyrd was unparalleled.  Next to hopping into a time machine, Freebird: the Movie is the best way to re-experience just how electric the band's live performances truly were!