Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Free Tibet (1998)
Studio Line: Ryko Discs - 100,000 People. 20 Bands. 1 Goal.

Free Tibet is a documentary film of the first Tibetan Freedom Concert, and features performances by 20 bands united by a common cause. Free Tibet also includes backstage footage and commentaries by performers and audience members, and provides background on the history of Tibet and the significance of the nonviolent struggle of the Tibetan people against oppression and persecution.

Includes Live Performances By: Beastie Boys, Beck, Bjork, Foo Fighters, Fugees, John Lee Hooker, Pavement, Sonic Youth, A Tribe Called Quest, Rage Against The Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smashing Pumpkins and Others.

Director: Sarah Pirozek
Cast: Various
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; 18 chapters; rated NR; 88 min.; $24.95; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: Bonus Beastie Boys Live Video: "Root Down", Tibetan Freedom Concert, NYC; Audio Commentary Track by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Director Spike Jonze, and Evan Bernard
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C+/C+

Remember back when benefit concerts were a big deal? You had Live Aid, you had the Amnesty tour - these were huge events! Now every time you turn around there's something new: free this, save that, blah blah blah. It gets downright confusing!

Some of the concerts actually have become annual events, such as Willie Nelson's string of Farm Aid shows. The "Free Tibet" performances didn't threaten that run, but they persisted for a few years, starting in 1996 in San Francisco and going through 1999. Organized mainly by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, the shows attempted to raise awareness and funds to help the cause of Tibetan freedom.

And that's a good thing - I shan't dispute that. However, the Free Tibet movie encoded on this DVD is largely a bad thing; it's a mish-mash of concert shots interspersed with informative sound-bites that succeeds neither as a music film or as a documentary.

I have no objection to movies that try to cover more than one goal, but these increased aspirations clearly make it more difficult for them to succeed. The problem with FT is that neither side of its particular coin is very well-executed. The musical segments are presented in a very haphazard, sloppy manner that uses far too much "MTV-style" editing in an artificial attempt to create a sense of excitement. I hate all of that quick-cutting. It seems desperate and it strongly detracts from the musical performances themselves.

This is further affected by the fact we witness relatively few complete songs. Either tunes are cut off before they finish or they get interrupted in the middle; these problems aren't universal but they occur frequently enough to become tremendously annoying. Do we really need to leave the stage so we can hear Bjork spout nonsense?

Actually, the simple presence of that Icelandic annoyance probably would have ruined the film for me; I can't stand her personality or her music, and she really gets on my nerves. However, it's not just Bjork who presents a negative effect in FT; the whole package is very flawed. In addition to the hyperkinetic editing, too many styles of photography are used. The imagery flits from format to format so quickly that the end result is nauseatingly dizzying; again, it feels like the filmmakers want to beat us into excitement.

It doesn't work, and all of these problems are compounded by the disjointed nature of the program. The concert footage actually takes a back to all of the material about the Tibetan cause. That's all fine and dandy, but I can' t help but feel that this message will actually be taken negatively because of the somewhat-deceptive packaging of the film. Someone sees all of the acts listed on the DVD's case and expects a cool concert movie. Instead, he gets a package of "public service announcement" materials with a little music tossed in at times. This may create a negative mindset toward the cause just because purchasers of the movie may feel cheated and deceived.

Or maybe not, but I do know that Free Tibet fails as either a concert film or a documentary about Tibet. I looked into it because I wanted to see some of the featured bands but I found the amount of music to be extremely limited and the presentation was weak.

The DVD:

Free Tibet appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Providing a coherent rating for FT is a tremendous challenge due to the wide variety of sources, but overall I felt it deserved a "C+".

The movie uses a number of different types of video and film materials; most originate from the concert itself, but even then a large mix of sources exists. Add to that lots of shots from archival materials and other venues (demonstrations, offices, hearings, etc.) and you have a mess of a film.

For the most part, my rating concentrates on the concert footage, where we still find a lot of variation. Shots of acts on-stage generally seem pretty clear and crisp, though the predominantly hand-held photography makes the images appear more jumpy and jittery than they need to be. The picture slips out of focus at times but usually looks solid. Most of the shots seem to come from video sources, and these result in some very noticeable jagged edges and moiré effects at times, though at least I witnessed no print flaws during the concert scenes. (Archival footage shows variable levels of speckles, scratches, and grain, however.)

Colors during the concert shots look fairly bright and bold, with no signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels are accurate and deep; shadow detail is a complete non-entity on the brightly-lit stage. Overall, FT looks watchable, though the quick-edit style gets old very fast and makes viewing the program a chore.

Audio quality is more consistent but not superior to the picture. The DVD provides both Dolby Digital 5.1surround and 2.0 stereo mixes. The former is pretty much a disaster. It sounded like the underlying material should come across clearly but the mix is encumbered with an absurdly high level of reverb; this seems to attempt a "you are there" effect, which may appear appropriate given the concert's large, outdoor venue. However, while some ambiance is nice, this track goes completely over the top. The sound seems very boomy and broad, and the music tends to become lost underneath all of the echo. I thought the mix was virtually unlistenable.

Better but still flawed is the stereo mix. It definitely provides a greater level of clarity, but problems remain. For one, bass response often seemed weak; some songs offer adequate low end, but many are thin and lifeless. High end tended to be too accentuated and thin, with some excessively brittle audio. Stereo separation was good, and the instruments sounded cleanly-defined within the various areas. All in all, this track seemed acceptable but remained problematic.

Free Tibet includes a few supplements. The most significant is an audio commentary that features Beastie Boy/executive producer Adam Yauch, Being John Malkovich director/FT cameraman Spike Jonze, and cameraman Evan Bernard. Yauch strongly dominates the track, as Jonze mainly offers just a few comments about his own work on the film and Bernard largely functions as "interviewer" to prompt comments from the others. It's a decent commentary that relates some useful information about the show itself plus the organization built around the Tibetan cause plus a variety of other factors. I can't say there's anything mind-blowing to be learned, but the commentary rarely drags and it makes for a mildly interesting listen.

The other extras are less compelling. We get a video for Beastie Boys' "Root Down" that comes from the 1997 Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York. The video uses the same quick-cut style found in this film and it fails to make the performance more entertaining. In fact, it becomes just as frustrating, since I'd sure like to see a participant for longer than an eighth of a second. (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but hopefully my point is understood.) Actually, some of the crowd footage comes from the 1996 show - I recognized the same folks. Beastie fans may be happy to get this video, though they'll probably already have the musical performance itself since it appears on the Tibetan Freedom Concert compact disc.

The "Milarepa" section of the DVD provides some text information about the Milarepa Foundation, the group that supported the benefits. It also features "Who Was Milarepa?" and "Where Is the Panchen Lama?", brief video segments that discuss the historical origins of the group's namesake and some Tibet-related issues, respectively.

Finally, the "Palm Previews" area offers a few trailers for other products. We get ads for Mandela, Stop Making Sense, and Third World Cop. The DVD's booklet also provides some information about how readers can help the Tibetan cause.

As a music fan, I found Free Tibet to be a very disappointing film. It combines poorly-shot and edited concert footage with some bland and heavy-handed documentary material, all of which creates a wholly-uncompelling package. The DVD presents average picture and sound plus some minor extras. If you're an absolutely die-hard fan of any of the bands, this DVD may have to enter your collection just by default, but otherwise I'd recommend you skip it.

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