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Back From Hell: A Tribute to Sam Kinison
Even nearly two decades after his untimely death, Sam Kinison's punchlines still scald. First rising to prominence in the early '80s, his brand of humor -- dark, cerebral and raunchy -- still has no peer in modern comedy. Blending scabrous insights, politically incorrect observations, rock music and an ex-preacher's sense of drama, he set the world of stand-up ablaze in a period when buttoned-down, brick-wall, bland humor reigned supreme. Yet there are stars from the era -- Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams, pre Patch Adams-suckage, for instance -- that transcended precisely because they took one look at the rule book and tossed it aside before blazing their own trail. Although there are elements of Kinison's material -- notably the misogynistic and homophobic rants -- that have not aged particularly well, much of what he was screaming about when Reagan was president is just as funny today.
Back From Hell: A Tribute to Sam Kinison isn't the definitive documentary on the late comedian's life some might be hoping for, but despite its lack of formal structure -- the Robert Small-directed film more or less drifts through Kinison's life, touching on the major aspects -- and over-reliance on current comics waxing rhapsodic about Kinison's work, it's still a pretty solid primer on one of the most transgressive funnymen ever to take the stage. Clocking in at right around 60 minutes in length, this special, which aired on Comedy Central earlier this year, is loosely tied to a recent Kinison tribute, which was held at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Although there are glimpses of that night -- everyone from Judy Tenuta to Pauly Shore stands up to say a little something -- much of Back From Hell is stitched together from Kinison's stand-up and copious interviews with a variety of Kinison's admirers and contemporaries, including his brother Bill.
Although some lip service is paid to the fact that Kinison's more controversial bits -- he infamously drew the ire of the homosexual community, and his brutally misogynistic point of view struck some as foul -- are more a product of reality than any real reflection on the man, not a lot of effort is made to reconcile the peculiar route Kinison took to stardom. Originally a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he dove into the world of comedy after he and his first wife were divorced. Rodney Dangerfield took Kinison under his wing and it wasn't long before that iconic scream -- "Oh! Oh! Ohhhhhhhh!" -- was ricocheting around arenas across the country. Those interviewed for Back From Hell -- Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke, Paul Provenza, George Lopez, Kathy Griffin and a whole slew of pros offer soundbites -- note that Kinison was the right man in the right place at the right time. One has only to look at his video for his noted cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing." In it, Kinison banters with Dangerfield and Jon Bon Jovi, before rolling around on the floor with Playboy Playmate Jessica Hahn, while a roster of rock stars (among them, Billy Idol, Slash and Joe Perry) looks on and leers. It's the perfect synthesis of sleaze and hipness; just one more example of the weird duality at work in Kinison's life.
Perhaps the defining documentary -- or fictional -- work about Sam Kinison's life is yet to be made. The legends that have sprung up around him are numerous, but there are powerful paradoxes at play: how does a man who began his life steeped in religion make such a severe left turn into provocative comedy and prodigious drug consumption? Back to Hell: A Tribute to Sam Kinison isn't interested in answering such a question. Instead, it gathers luminaries from the world of comedy and lets them pay homage to a man, much like Bill Hicks, another raw-nerved comic who died much too soon, whose brand of twisted, intelligent humor makes the laughs catch in your throat.The DVD
Back From Hell: A Tribute to Sam Kinison arrives on DVD with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. While the newly filmed interview segments look near-flawless (if slightly soft), much of the documentary is comprised of vintage footage of Kinison's stand-up. The quality of this archival material ranges from passable to poor, with several clips appearing to have been dubbed directly off of a VHS tape. Given Kinison's stature in the comedy community, it's a little surprising there hasn't been some kind of effort to preserve more of his work. From the looks of most of these segments (which haven't been spruced up since last year's Unleashed DVD, which contained two of his best-known HBO specials, "Breaking the Rules" and "Family Entertainment Hour"), someone needs to step in and remaster these before it's too late.The Audio:
The English, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, understandably, doesn't have the snap or shine of a newly released Hollywood blockbuster -- indeed, many of the vintage clips have an analog hiss to them -- but, as with the visuals, the new material sounds perfectly fine, with no distortion or drop-out. An optional, English, Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is included, but, unfortunately, there are no optional subtitles.The Extras:
More footage from the one-night-only Comedy Store event, under the heading "Stories from the Comedy Store," features remembrances from Bill Kinison, Craig Gass, Marc Maron and Pauly Shore. The four clips, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, are playable separately or all together for an aggregate run time of 12 minutes, 32 seconds. Under the heading "Music," there's a live performance of Kinison's signature cover of "Wild Thing," as well as the "Wild Thing" music video, which is littered with a who's-who of '80s rock stars (it's probably the first and last time Rodney Dangerfield and Jon Bon Jovi have hung out together). They're presented in fullscreen, playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 10 minutes, five seconds. Rounding out the supplements is eight vintage clips of Kinison's stand-up ("Bigger Than Me"; "Donating to AIDS Research"; "Extended Cocaine Bit"; "Friends When You're High"; "Jesus' Wife"; "Leper Whore"; "Sam's Movie Idea" and "Swallowing") that are presented in fullscreen of wildly varying quality. The clips are playable separately or all together for an aggregate run time of 17 minutes, six seconds.Final Thoughts:
Even nearly two decades after his untimely death, Sam Kinison's punchlines still scald. First rising to prominence in the early '80s, his brand of humor -- dark, cerebral and raunchy -- still has no peer in modern comedy. Blending scabrous insights, politically incorrect observations, rock music and an ex-preacher's sense of drama, he set the world of stand-up ablaze in a period when buttoned-down, brick-wall, bland humor reigned supreme. Yet there are stars from the era -- Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams, pre Patch Adams-suckage, for instance -- that transcended precisely because they took one look at the rule book and tossed it aside before blazing their own trail. Although there are elements of Kinison's material -- notably the misogynistic and homophobic rants -- that have not aged particularly well, much of what he was screaming about when Reagan was president is just as funny today. At the very least, this hour-long documentary will likely earn Kinison some new fans, or send them off in search of last year's compilation, "Unleashed," which features two of his best-known HBO specials. Recommended.