DVD Review: Roy Orbison - In Dreams

Longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy learning more about the singer's unique art in this often fascinating documentary.
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It's hard to believe that 26 years have passed since Roy Orbison unexpectedly died of a heart attack.  He had been enjoying a creative and commercial renaissance: he released the acclaimed TV special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night; he recorded the first (and highly successful) Traveling Wilburys album; and he had completed his first original album in several years, Mystery Girl.  His shocking death forever halted his plans to tour, and he never experienced the rave reviews and solid sales for his posthumous album.  Nevertheless, his legacy endures through timeless classics such as "Oh! Pretty Woman," "In Dreams," and "It's Over."  Originally released in 2006, Sony Legacy has reissued the documentary In Dreams, an often fascinating film that weaves viewers through his rise, fall, and 1980s comeback.  Produced in cooperation with Orbison's widow Barbara, In Dreams tells Orbison's story through archival interviews as well as newer insights from friends and colleagues.

The viewer discovers how Orbison developed his signature vocal style; for example, he learned to project his voice in order to be heard over the drums in his earliest Sun Records recordings.  Eventually moving to Nashville, he found success as a songwriter, then signed with Monument Records, where he recorded a string of hit singles.  His first modest success, "Uptown," represented a new sound for Nashville, combining traditional country with pop and lush string arrangements.  His operatic voice stood out from other pop artists at the time, demonstrating impressive range and interpretive skills.

Various artists lend their perspectives on what made Orbison so distinct and influential.  Robert Plant and Jeff Lynne fondly recall how they grew up listening to Orbison's music, while Bruce Springsteen specifically praises the 1960 classic "Only the Lonely" because Orbison recorded the entire song in one take.  The late Robin Gibb and Bono single out "Running Scared" for its emotion and the high note Orbison executed with apparent ease.  Gibb sums up Orbison's influence on subsequent male vocalists: "he made emotion fashionable."  By 1963, Orbison toured with the Beatles--and they were often afraid to follow him on stage.  

Along with successes came tragedies--Orbison's first wife died in a car crash, while his two sons perished in a tragic house fire.  As musical tastes changed, his popularity gradually ebbed, becoming seemingly obsolete in 1970.  Britain still held him in great reverence, however, so he continued touring there--now accompanied by new wife Barbara.  His fortunes changed by 1978, when artists who were reared on his music rediscovered him.  Emmylou Harris recorded a Grammy-winning duet with Orbison in 1980, David Lynch infamously used the tune "In Dreams" in his 1986 film Blue Velvet, and k.d. lang duetted with Orbison on a cover of "Crying" that proved a major 1987 hit.  Inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame followed, and admirers such as Bono and Springsteen penned tracks for him. From 1986 until his death, Orbison finally achieved the respect, acclaim, and commercial success he richly deserved.

While In Dreams thoroughly covers much of Orbison's life, it ends too abruptly.  Instead of simply concluding with the singer's death, it would have been prudent to discuss how his influence lingers today.  How have his songs endured?  Why do they still sound like nothing else on the radio?  These questions should have been further explored.  

Despite the unsatisfying ending, In Dreams provides an effective overview of Orbison's career.  Anyone who is unfamiliar with his life and work should view this film; longtime fans will enjoy reliving his career highlights and gaining more insight into how he developed his unique art and image.