When Nicolas Roeg Met Dennis Potter: Track 29

1988's Track 29 is a late entry of Nicolas Roeg (R.I.P.)'s and Dennis Potter's that fans tend to let slip off the ends of both of their oeuvres.  For Potter, it comes right at the peak of his Blackeyes period, where his work was getting increasingly overwrought, and even long-term admirers were beginning to turn on him.  And for Roeg, well, from all the commemorations I've been reading of him over the past two days, he seems to be essentially remembered as simply the director of Don't Look Now and maybe two other films quietly preserved in the Criterion Collection.  Well, here's another very noteworthy creation they haven't gotten to yet; it hasn't even been released in HD anywhere in the world.  Yes, it's DVD only I'm afraid, but I think you'll find it's definitely worth getting your hands a little dirty and reaching back into the world of standard definition video for it.

Update 11/26/18 - 6/15/19: It looks like somebody had the same idea I had when we lost Roeg - it was time to revisit this film.  New this month from Indicator/ Power House is an impressive special edition blu-ray of Track 29, no longer DVD-only.
Track 29 is a remake of Potter's original 1974 BBC teleplay, Schmoedipus, with Gary Oldman in the lead role, originally played by Tim Curry.  So yes, it's another in a line of big screen cinematic Potter remakes like Pennies From Heaven or The Singing Detective.  But unlike those, which struggled to condense robust miniseries into a single feature's running time, this one actually expands what was just over an hour long to 90+ minutes.  So happily, this one isn't a "Reader's Digest" triviality, instead managing to retain pretty much everything that worked in the original.  The bulk of Track 29's dialogue, at least between the two main characters, is almost word-for-word as it was written in Scmoedipus.
But if Potter was already getting overwrought, he found an enabler in his partnership with Roeg.  To some degree, this is great.  We get to open up the action which previously took place 75% in a single London apartment to a wealth of North Carolinian locations, and you can just tell that creative photography of the underwater swimming pool shots or the bumper cars' electric stalks sparking in Theresa Russell's bedroom are very welcome additions brought to the table by having a visionary, A-list director.  But the absolute insanity of Christopher Lloyd's political rally of model train enthusiasts which expands what was the husband's completely realistic and grounded hobby in the original version just gets downright bizarre.
But it's not just Roeg's influence that takes this film into over-the-top territory.  As much as the bulk of the original has been faithfully transcribed here, Potter has also made some sensationalized changes.  Where the original tracked the husband character's frustrations with his daily life with him failing to connect to his coworkers or getting chewed out by his manager, Bob Hoskins (here replaced by by the equally terrific Seymour Cassel), he's now indulging in a humorously kinky affair with his nurse, played by none other than Sandra Bernhard.  The original had a simple, natural exchange where the husband points out a beautiful girl on the street and his coworker claims not to notice and then calmly chastises him.  Here, Sandra puts on red rubber gloves and a conductor's hat to spank him to a specially prepared cassette tape.  The same basic themes are presented, but it's a hugely different tone.  And I won't get into any spoilers, but the ending has completely changed.
But don't take this as one long gripe.  It's not all change for the worse.  I would say I slightly prefer the original, thanks in part to Curry's frightening performance, and the fact that the extra half hour does more to dilute the original's power than enhance it.  But this fresh take is often quite rewarding.  It's certainly a lot more artful and entertaining to look at.  And the new ending, while far less subtle, might actually work a bit better, at least in some ways.  You do get the impression that Potter has had the chance to ruminate on this material and make some new observations.  Plus, the new cast is terrific.  And at least taken on its own terms, as opposed to in direct comparison to the original, it's certainly a dark, fascinating little film that has the power to raise eyebrows just like Potter did in '74.
I used to own the original 2007 Anchor Bay DVD, but I sold it off when I replaced it for the 2012 Image DVD long before I thought of creating this site.  But I can tell you that it was barebones and fullscreen, looking more or less like a video tape transposed to disc.  Image's DVD, then, is an anamorphic widescreen disc.  But I'm happy to leave them both in the past now that Indicator has released the film on BD this summer.
2012 US Image DVD top; 2019 UK Indicator BD bottom.
The DVD is certainly soft and standard def... I'm surprised they came out with a widescreen update of a catalog title as late as 2012 and released it as DVD only.  Still, it was a welcome improvement over the Anchor Bay disc, looking naturally framed (at 1.78:1) and again, anamorphic.  The only major drawback, as you can plainly see in a couple of the shots above, is that it has interlacing issues.  Those are of course gone, now, on Indicator's new blu-ray.  It's a bit brighter, clearer, and matted a little tighter at 1.85:1.  Still, it's not the greatest HD restoration I've ever seen.  Grain is soft when it's there at all, and there's plenty of pixelation and digital noise when you look closely.  The booklet simply says, "HandMade's HD remaster was the source of this Indicator edition," suggesting this is an old HD master - the same one used for the Image DVD, by the looks of it.  It certainly trumps the DVD, and is perfectly adequate as a BD transfer; but if you're looking for a Roeg-worthy restoration or anything cutting edge, this'll be a bit of a let-down.

Image's audio is just your basic Dolby stereo mix, which is perfectly fine, and lacks subtitle accompaniment.  Indicator did just alright in terms of PQ, but they really come through in every other department.  The stereo mix is bumped up to LPCM and English-language subtitles have been added, plus they've gone the extra mile and included an isolated music and effects track.
And they do even better in the special features department, turning this into a proper special edition.  Image gave us nothing, not even the trailer.  Well, the trailer's here now, and so is so much more.  We get an excellent audio commentary by film historian Jim Hemphill, who has a ton if insight and behind-the-scenes info to share.  Even if you typically skip commentaries that aren't by the filmmakers, I'd give this one a listen.  Speaking of commentaries by the filmmaker... we sort of kinda get one.  There's an audio interview with Roeg from 1994, followed by an audience Q&A, that they play over the film.  Unfortunately, he's mostly talking about his then-latest film Heart of Darkness and other general topics, rather than Track 29; so it's more of a general-interest track only for serious Roeg fans.  But hey, I'll take it!  And if you want more on Track 29, we get it in the form of some smart on-camera interviews with the editor, sound designer, costumer (this one's brief) and Colleen Camp.  There's also a photo gallery and a substantial, 36-page booklet, which includes notes by Danny Leigh, plus interviews with Potter and Russell and excerpts from critical reviews of the day.  Indicator's release also features a reversible cover with alternate artwork.
Schmoedipus, meanwhile, remains painfully unreleased, like so many of Potter's excellent teleplays.  I'm only able to include a screenshot of it because low quality rips, with that ugly time-code running over the whole thing, have been passed along on the internet for years; and I've made myself a DVD-R.  Potter's plays have been dribbling out slowly, mainly thanks to the BFI and Network these days, so one remains hopeful.  But there's so much great BBC drama in the vault, and the releases so sporadic, that it's hard to maintain optimism for any particular title, let alone Potter's entire body of work.

But then again, I wasn't terribly optimistic about getting Track 29 on blu, and yet here we are, with a sweet special edition.  So I guess, as Potter's shown us here, you never know who'll come knocking on your unsuspecting door next.

2 comments:

  1. loved this movie, teresa and colleen camp are both smoldering...and sandra rubs me just the right way too...

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  2. I love this sick ass movie as much as I love anything else in the whole world... Although I do think PErFORMANCE is a better film overall, TRACK 29 will always hold a special (kinky) place in my hear!

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