[2 June 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Question: why would you buy the DVD to a 42-minute musical that is not only A> free to view online, and B> linked to at the end of this review?
Answer: because of Commentary! The Musical, obviously.
For those unfamiliar with the germination of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a quick recap. During the Writers Strike of late 2007/early 2008, Joss Whedon (of Buffy, Angel, and Firefly fame) got stuck in production limbo, grew bored, and decided to do something about it. He rounded up his siblings and industry friends in order to do a web-based musical about a mad scientist that keeps a video blog of his dastardly deeds.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, made on a budget of about $200,000, quickly became a viral internet sensation—and arguably the best thing to emerge from the Strike’s gloomy aftermath—up to the point where it got released on DVD in December of 2008 through Amazon only. From there, it immediately rocketed into the Bestsellers list and confirming Whedon’s status as something of a minor-key visionary.
Yet anyone can film a musical and put it online; in the age of YouTube, Hulu, Vimeo, and more, the way we make, interpret, and interact with media allows just about anyone with a good idea to become a star. What makes Whedon’s vision profoundly different is simply the caliber of the material, rounding up big name stars like Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillon to do this campy little musical that was filmed with a real crew on real sets with real special effects and—most critically—filled with real, genuinely funny songs. Best of all? Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was—and still is—completely free for anyone to view anytime they wish.
Much like Radiohead’s “pay what you want” model for In Rainbows and Trent Reznor’s free (or at least nearly-free) glut of excellent recent releases, big name artists are gradually discovering the true value of fan loyalty. Using the internet as a catalyst, artists are now able to get their works to fans within hours of completing it, sometimes even “rewarding” fans for their continued support, much as how Reznor put out the excellent album The Slip shortly after the release of his four-part instrumental Ghosts suite wound up making him a substantial amount of money.
In one of the behind the scenes featurettes on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon notes how multiple companies liked this idea of a web-based musical but insisted that he roll it out over the course of 18 weeks, possibly as a pay-subscription deal. Whedon, instead, went the free route. His reward? A huge cult fanbase around the project, massive DVD and soundtrack sales, and already a swarm of internet rumors about a sequel.
Yet none of this would matter were the musical not up to snuff, which—blissfully—it is. The tropes are simplistic: Dr. Horrible (Harris) wants to get into the Evil League of Evil, partly to become the baddest villain of all time, but also to win over the heart of his cute laundry-buddy Penny (Felicia Day).
During a bumbled Horrible heist, Penny inadvertently meets Horrible’s arch-nemesis: the square-jawed, egocentric superhero Captain Hammer (Fillon), who wins Penny over and aides her in getting a homeless shelter built in the city. Though the story may be familiar, the execution is not: largely told through Horrible’s perspective, a series of video blog postings slowly unveil Horrible’s plans to use a freeze ray to conquer the city and upset the status quo (“because the status ... is ... not quo!”).
As the show moves along, musical sequences are added, the camera and editing become more “conventional” (cutting to different shots, implementing flashbacks, etc.), and soon Horrible and Hammer are fighting for the heart of the same girl. Yet, as with most Whedon creations, you don’t realize just how emotionally involved you’ve become in this seemingly-simple story until the very, very end ...
Part of the reason that Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog works as well as it does is because of its loose-limbed freedom, the product of a bunch of Hollywood types looking for something genuinely fun to do outside of the constrictions of the studio system. As such, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is goofy and campy, the premise so fantastically absurd that you’re drawn in expecting a good time (which it is), investing yourself in the characters without even thinking that there will be any sort of emotional payoff.
Had the Writer’s Strike not happened, there’s a very real chance that Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog itself may not have happened, and the result we see today is about as strong an endorsement for independent filmmaking as there’s ever been.
So why, then, should we be interested in the copious “extras” usually tagged on to DVDs of this sort? First off, the bonus features here are both numerous and fun: the behind-the-scenes featurettes tell you everything you’d want to know about the creation of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in a breezy fashion, the commentary gives cast insight into the filming process, and the user-generated “application videos” for the Evil League of Evil are a delight (of particular note are the apps for Movie Monkey, The Reverend, and—best of all—the devious master of circumcision: Tur Mohel).
Yet there’s something special to be said for a group of people that can come together and create something like Commentary! The Musical. It’s exactly what it sounds like: though Commentary! The Musical is technically “just” a commentary track that plays over the film itself, the complete original cast and crew got together to do a series of new songs about the commentary track, which features such highlights like writer Zak Whedon’s rap song, Nathan Fillon’s loungey tune “I’m Better Than Neil”, and Felicia Day’s ballad about her “process” as an actress (which may or may not have been hindered by sharing screen time with the hunky Fillon).
The songs are fully-produced, remarkably complex in terms of meter and structure, and cover a wide range of styles, ranging from Broadway hoofers (Neil Patrick Harris’ closing solo tune about how talented he is, complete with tap dancing) to ragtime barroom pleasers (actor Simon Helberg gets his long-awaited star turn with “Nobody Wants to Be Moist”). Commentary! The Musical is—against all odds—even more irreverent than the feature it’s supposed to be commenting on.
Though many of these features are no doubt catering to the hardcore (even at the end of Commentary! The Musical, the cast notes that if you’ve gotten this far, you’re “a huge f—-ing nerd!”), these immaculately well-crafted features more than justify the purchase of this DVD, now available through traditional retail outlets for the first time. It’s not “high art” by any means, but Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog remains a positively delightful musical romp, a rare treat that transcends its humble origins to become something more than just a viral video from 2008: it’s better than just about any other comedy you’ll see all year.