The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Expectations can be a bitch. Back when I got Circus on LD in 1996, I was stunned at how good it look. I thought it’d be a mess, so the relatively clean and vivid image really impressed me.
Jump ahead eight years, and now I expected the DVD to look even better. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet my high expectations. The picture remained acceptable and was probably stronger than it had a right to be given the age of the material and its checkered past, but it definitely suffered from a mix of problems.
Sharpness became one of these concerns. The show never seemed very distinctive. Even the most detailed shots were a little off, and wider vistas became noticeably ill-defined. The softness failed to turn truly problematic, but the program simply didn’t present very good definition. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, though, and the show seemed to lack edge enhancement.
Source flaws were a trickier issue. When it came to print flaws, I think the show essentially lacked them. Perhaps a few speckles cropped up, but that was about it. When I looked at source flaws, however, that was another subject entirely. The program appeared moderately grainy, and a lot of debris cropped up around the edges of the screen. I believe that these concerns came from the original negatives and weren’t related to the transfer itself. In other words, they were always there as part of the photography.
I may be wrong about that, but since the defects varied dependent on camera angle, this seemed more likely. Watch the Who’s performance to see what I mean. The shots of Townshend displayed only a smidgen of debris, while those of Moon looked much messier. If the problems didn’t stem from the source material, I’d expect them to remain more consistent throughout the show and not be so “shot-specific”. In any case, they cause some distractions.
Colors looked passable. What with all the circus elements, the show presented a pretty lively palette, but the tones didn’t come across terribly strongly. They looked moderately lively but could be somewhat drab. Blacks were pretty positive, though, as they appeared reasonably deep. Not a lot of shadows popped up, as most of the low-light situations came from crowd shots. They were a bit flat, but that was to be expected, since the crew didn’t light the audience. Overall, Circus looked good for what it was, but I thought it could have been stronger.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Rock and Roll Circus presented a cheerier impression. As one might expect from a live performance, the soundfield focused most heavily on the front speakers. Stereo imaging was good but a bit erratic. Sometimes the instruments spread neatly across the channels, but sometimes they meshed together a little mushily. This occurred mainly during the early numbers. The imaging improved as the show progressed, though it never totally excelled; the Stones’ trademark hard panning for guitars didn’t materialize here. As for the surrounds, they didn’t do much. They tossed in some light ambience and that was about it.
While the imaging didn’t impress me terribly, the quality of the audio seemed pretty strong. Vocals consistently came across as natural and distinctive. Jagger sounded particularly rich and well-defined, but all of the others enjoyed good reproduction as well. Guitars were crisp and sharp, and other instrumentation like harmonicas also seemed solid. Bass response was absolutely terrific. Low-end appeared tight and warm, without any annoying boominess. Only drums occasionally came across as somewhat limp; they were acceptable but lacked great pop. Nonetheless, the audio was mostly positive, and I thought the soundtrack merited a “B+”.
For its DVD debut, Circus comes with a nice mix of extras. First we locate a whopping three separate audio commentaries. The first features director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and director of photography Nick Richmond, both of whom sit together for a running, screen-specific chat. Lindsay-Hogg dominates this lively discussion. The guys tell us a little about the project’s origins and development, as we learn how it got started and how the various participants wound up on board. We also get a lot of good notes about the difficult circumstances of the day itself. We hear about the dynamics of those involved and various concerns. Many revealing bits appear, such as the notion that Ivry Gitlis didn’t know Yoko Ono would accompany him and wasn’t too happy about it. This is a very involving and useful track.
Next we get an edited piece that presents remarks from musicians Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, and Yoko Ono. Each of them sits separately and the results end up in this edited piece. First the bad news: don’t expect much from Jagger. Mick shows up briefly at the start to give us some background on the show, and he reappears at the very end for a few quick notes about it. And that’s it, as Jagger plays a disappointingly small role in the piece.
Otherwise, this track works well. After Mick’s quick intro, we go to Anderson, who starts to chat at the beginning of the Tull number and finishes after “A Quick One”. Taj Mahal then shows up and he sticks around until the act with the “Lovely Luna”. From there we hear from Yoko, who finishes at the end of her number with the Dirty Mac. Wyman picks up at the start of the Stones’ set and concludes with the finish of “No Expectations”. Except for Jagger’s quick tidbit, Keith talks for the rest of the show.
All of the participants cover fairly similar subjects. They mainly talk about the events of the day and their general impressions of the event. Some more specific issues pop up, such as when Taj Mahal talks about the legal issues that almost prevented his performance and Anderson’s discussion of his band’s status at the time. Ono gives us a little of Lennon’s thoughts about the, show, while Richards and Wyman present some good notes from the Stones’ point of view. It’d have been nice to hear more from Jagger, but this nonetheless stands as an informative piece.
On the final commentary, we hear from Marianne Faithfull, reporter David Dalton and spectator David Stark. This piece doesn’t start until the beginning of Taj Mahal’s number, and each participant offers his or her own segment. Faithfull opens it and continues through the end of the Dirty Mac tracks. Her comments fall in line with those heard in the prior commentary, as she mostly recounts her impressions of the show and her experiences as part of the scene. Faithfull does present a more artistic interpretation of things, though, as she gets into various influences and elements. She does get the best line of the three tracks when she notes that Yoko’s screeching isn’t “half as excruciating now”. (Dalton also quotes another good Faithfull line; when he talks about the Stones’ rumored allegiance with Satan, he states she noted that he was more likely a devotee of satin.)
Dalton looks at things from an outsider’s point of view and gives us some history as well. He reflects on the Stones’ place in music at the time, what it was like at the filming, the status of Brian Jones, and some info about the Stones’ songs. Stark doesn’t pop up until the show’s end credits, as he only offers quick notes from a fan’s perspective. It would’ve been nice to hear a little more in that vein, but this is nonetheless another edifying piece.
After this we discover six bonus tracks. Three of these come from Taj Mahal: “Checkin’ Up On My Baby”, “Corina”, and “Leavin’ Trunk”. We get two from pianist Julius Katchen: “Ritual Fire Dance” and “Sonata in C: First Movement”. All five come with Dolby Stereo 2.0 audio. The Taj Mahal tracks are decent but nothing special. Looking badly out of place in his tuxedo, Katchen’s material is worth a look solely for curiosity value.
The last bonus song presents an alternate version of the Dirty Mac’s “Yer Blues”. Also with Dolby 2.0 audio, this one shows four different camera angles at the same time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t let us switch among them; instead, we see the screen divided into four squares. It’s still interesting, especially since this version of “Blues” differs from the one in the main program. It’s sloppier, and Lennon botches the lyrics badly at one point, but Clapton’s solo beats that of the “real” one.
The Clowns is exactly what one might expect. Introduced by Bill Wyman, it features two minutes of rough black and white footage. We see a couple of not-very-funny clowns do their act. Skip it.
Up next we locate some backstage footage. Called “Close But No Cigar”, we see Lennon, Jagger, Ono and Julian Lennon as they goof for the cameras. It only lasts 43 seconds but stands as a cool historical curiosity.
Though he doesn’t appear on any of the commentaries, we hear from the Who’s Pete Townshend in a separate interview. This runs 18 minutes, 25 seconds and includes comments on a mix of topics related to the Circus. Pete discusses an aborted Who/Stones/Faces tour, the creation of “A Quick One” and its influence on later work, shooting the Circus, and reflections on the other artists and the show. Pete’s always an interesting interview, and he provides cogent notes here.
A still photo gallery presents 42 images. These mix shots from the show and more candid pictures to create a good collection. Finally, we find a Fat Boy Slim remix of “Sympathy for the Devil”. Already available on a maxi-single from 2003, it creates a music video from Circus footage and other elements. It’s a decent reworking, but the video’s not very interesting.
One surprising nice touch: all three commentaries come with subtitles in English, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. The Townshend interview also includes these kinds of text.
It took almost three decades for The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus to emerge from the vaults. Was it worth that wait? Not really, as the show’s not a classic. However, it’s generally pretty good and offers a cool snapshot of the Stones and others circa 1968. It’s invaluable as a historical document. The DVD presents average picture quality plus very good audio and fine extras highlighted by three useful audio commentaries. The Circus is a must-have for Stones fans.