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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
Palm Pictures // Unrated // August 24, 2004
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 8, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Movie

As the son of both a music teacher and a sound engineer, I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by music from an early age. Although I've never played in a band or recorded my own stuff (despite having several years of saxophone lessons under my belt), I've always appreciated the many subtleties that music has to offer. You know what I mean---it's the way a certain album or song just "pops", even if you can't put your finger on why. Much of the success of a recording is due to the production itself, and it's not as simple as many people might think. There's many things to take into account to successfully produce an album, because every note and decibel has to be just right.

Perhaps the most well-rounded example of a producer that really changed the face of music is Tom Dowd. With a career that spanned over 50 years in the industry, Dowd proved to be one of the most talented producers and engineers to ever set foot behind a control panel. He was a wizard at the helm of even the most intimidating equipment, and a man who made working "behind the scenes" seem really, really important. Just ask the people he's worked with---the list is practically a "who's who" of jazz and classic rock, including the likes of Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and...well, you get the picture.

Just about everybody.

His sharp ear for sound production was evident to all who worked with him, and thankfully he was recognized for his efforts. From his earliest projects as a young man in his early 20s, Tom Dowd showed an obvious talent and natural skill for his life's passion, and---like many legends in any field---kept at it as long as he could. Needless to say, his list of accomplishments within the music industry have been widely recognized, and even more so since his unfortunate passing in October of 2002. I could literally fill a book detailing many of these accomplishments, as his contributions to the world of music have been invaluable. I could…but someone's already said it much better than I could ever hope to.

Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, the first film by director Mark Moormann, is a thoroughly satisfying look at the man behind the music (seen above). It's a well-rounded documentary that does a great job paying tribute to Dowd and his accomplishments, and can be enjoyed by anyone…even if you've never set foot inside a recording studio. It even examines his early days at Atlantic Records, making liberal stops for interview footage from the industry's finest (a number of which have already been mentioned). Overall, it's a rich portrait of a man who was lucky enough to work in a field he was naturally born to, and kept it up for the rest of his life. Moormann skillfully balances a staggering amount of rare footage and photographs, and keeps the film's 90-minute running time moving swiftly. It's not often that I never check my watch during a movie, but this is a rare case where I didn't give it the time of day (no pun intended). From music rookies to long-time lovers of the industry, it's easily one of the most interesting documentaries you're likely to see. To make a long story short, the strength of the film alone really makes this DVD worth adding to your want list.

Thankfully, Palm Pictures has come through with a well-rounded DVD package that supports the film nicely. With only one drawback in the entire presentation (read on for more), Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is an easy recommendation for anyone who appreciates music as an invaluable tool for creative expression. Featuring loads of screen time with the man himself (as the bulk of the newer interview footage was thankfully completed before his death), it's one of the rare discs that can really take you by surprise. In all regards, it'll be hard to find a more fitting tribute to one of the 20th Century's most gifted musicians. With that said, let's see how this one stacks up:

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality:

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music features a decent video treatment with only one notable setback. The issue in question is the lack of anamorphic enhancement---very surprising for any new release---although the image quality is still quite good. The trasnfer seems to be very clean and bright, which is quite an accomplishment for a film so heavy with older footage and vintage photographs. Overall, you're not likely to be disappointed here, but the strange absence of anamorphic enhancement seems more like a careless mistake than anything else.

On the other hand, the included Dolby Digital Surround mix (presented in English with no optional subtitles) is about as good as fans can hope for. Obviously, you'd expect such a sound-driven film to excel in this department, and Tom Dowd and the Language of Music doesn't disappoint. Surrounds are generally reserved for the music itself, while dialogue is anchored in the front channels. The classic (and more modern) music selections are about as crystal clear as technology will allow, serving as an appropriate tribute to such a gifted music producer.

Menu Design & Presentation:

The menu designs (seen above) feature relatively simple layouts, which really makes for smooth navigation. The 90-minute film is broken down into 18 chapters, and a layer change was detected near the 60-minute mark. Packaging itself was also nicely done, featuring a clear keepcase with a brief insert booklet (including a short essay by Stan Cornyn). I didn't really care for the cover design, though; as fitting as it was for the subject matter, the overcrowding of text made the front cover look more like a magazine advertisement than anything else. Still, this was a quality presentation, and it's great to have such an excellent film in any form.

Bonus Features:

Once again, Palm Pictures has done a great job in the extras department. Although this release isn't exactly bursting at the seams with bonus material, the quality of everything presented is nearly as compelling as the film itself. The bulk of these extras arrives in the form of Deleted Scenes and Additional Interviews, which run for approximately 90 minutes total. The deleted scenes (which include "Thomas Edison", "What is a Producer?", and "The Family Dowd") offer more colorful details about the life of Tom Dowd, including a few additional conversations with the man himself. Following a similar pattern, the additional interview footage features much more insight from Dowd and the people he's worked with, and includes talks with Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, and many more. Additionally, the smart organization of these interviews (easily browsed with a handy "back/next" feature) makes everything flow even more smoothly.

Also here is Making of a Studio Shoot (3 minutes), a brief look behind the scenes of a typical filming session. The film-appropriate extras are concluded with a short Photo Gallery, which is presented like a self-guided tour with background narratives. Also here are a few Previews for other Palm Pictures releases (including Millennium Mambo and Noi), as well as a few Weblinks for a few appropriate sites (one of which has been linked below for your convenience). All in all, it's a thoroughly satisfying set of bonus material that should absolutely thrill music lovers. Although an audio commentary would have been the icing on the cake, there's enough valuable history in the film itself to make up for it.

Final Thoughts

From top to bottom, this was another fascinating DVD release by Palm Pictures. Although the lack of anamorphic enhancement takes the technical portion down a notch, this is a wonderful disc that should be viewed by any serious music lover---even if you've never picked up an instrument. It's a detailed look into a true pioneer of the music industry, revealing a man who genuinely seemed to enjoy every second of it. With the strength of the film itself---combined with a well-rounded batch of bonus features---Tom Dowd and the Language of Music is a sure-fire winner. Highly Recommended.

Other Links of Interest

The Official Website of Tom Dowd and the Language of Music

Randy Miller III is a music lovin' art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.
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