We do the weird stuff

Apropos of nothing, let's revisit Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: Commentary! - The Musical

Matt Looker

12th June 2019

Now that films like La La Land and The Greatest Showman are being celebrated for inventing the musical, it’s time to reappraise the best thing to ever come singing out of the Whedonverse. No, not Once More With Feeling. And no, not Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I’m obviously talking about Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: Commentary! – The Musical. But you knew that already. It's in the title. Come with me on a terribly niche journey...

I’m not going to assume that you know what I’m talking about and I certainly wouldn’t dare to suggest that some works of true genius often pass us by while we‘re distracted by Transformers and Fast And The Furious movies. But, just in case you have been living under The Rock for the past 11 years, back during the time of the Writer’s Strike of 2008, Joss Whedon directed and released onto the internet Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a self-financed three-episode miniseries written by himself, his brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen.

The premise sees supervillain Dr Horrible, played by Neil Patrick Harris, detailing his application to be accepted into the Evil League Of Evil via his online video blog whilst falling in love with innocent passer-by Penny (Felicia Day) and fending off his vain, dim-witted nemesis, superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion).

And it’s a musical. And not just a musical, but a brilliantly-observed, slapstick-funny, dark-edged dramatic, musical parody of the superhero genre even before the superhero genre grew into the all-consuming monster that it is today, feeding on our very life-force until the very fabric of our whole reality became equal parts superheroes, Trump and catastrophic weather. Plus the songs are really catchy. And the whole thing is just 42 minutes long.

Seriously, how does 2008 look this old already?

While the show/series/online event might have lost some of its impact over the last comic-book-saturated decade or so, it ended up giving us something else that’s arguably even better and is still as sharp as an exploded death ray fragment. Because, for the DVD release of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the Whedons and Tancharoen wrote a full musical version of a commentary track. Together with the whole cast, they play exaggerated versions of themselves, and bang out tune after tune that are cleverly written, perfectly self-aware, and that expertly ridicule not only the filmmaking process with supposed competing egos, but also the commercial nature of DVD special features in the first place, and how they are always just vapid circle-jerks for all involved. And it all plays in precise time with what’s happening on screen. It is a most uncommon commentary, indeed.

Plus the songs are really catchy. And the whole thing is just 42 minutes long.

The opener is a bold, energetic number entitled 'Commentary!' (the exclamation mark is important), complete with deliberate extended awkward pause and the admission that "It's moments like these that sell DVDs/We need to sell more... we've only sold four". Following this comes a song that offers what could be construed as the only genuine piece of film commentary on the soundtrack: a particularly bitter retelling of the Writers Strike, with some real venom about the industry’s treatment of its writers. The whole song plays like a rousing call to arms, only to segue into a more contemplative lament that, ultimately, the strike didn’t really achieve anything, all revealed via some wicked word play: "And years from now I’ll tell my tyke/Just what it feels like to strike... out".

But then the whole musical commentary kicks up several meta gears when an extra named Stacey (who played 'Groupie No. 2') steps up next to sing an unprecedented solo on the basis that she paid Joss 10 bucks to do so. And this is exactly what the song’s about. Ten Dollar Solo contains great gag lines like "I can’t lose/I’ve paid my dues", "They say I’m not ready to get in the game/But I’ll show them... my ATM" and the sublime:

They say Hollywood is heartless
And only the strongest survives
But I like it plenty
I gave Joss a twenty
And got back a dream and two fives
After the song has finished, Zack complains aloud: "Joss, that song had no content. It wasn’t even about the movie, it was about itself. That’s like breaking the ninth wall. It’s pointless.” Except, of course, it’s not pointless. It’s very deliberate - this song sets up the musical commentary as being apart from the production it's meant to be addressing. It’s its own production – it is about itself – and you can tell that just as much effort went into creating and recording this 'special feature' as filming Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, only to much less attention and acclaim.

That song is another that takes a leftfield turn, when Neil Patrick Harris interrupts and takes over the lead vocal, gazumping Stacey mid-melody by paying Joss 15 dollars instead. If the song at that point was already breaking the ninth wall, then it finds a tenth when Neil shows his disdain by singing "Ten dollar lame-o" only for Stacey to provide backing with the refrain "Are those the words now?". It’s a moment of pure lyrical cognisance, a device that gets repeated throughout the whole endeavour as the songs become more and more concerned with their own existence in real time, right up until the point that the final song, a reprise of Commentary!, sings its own actions: "Here’s the big finish/Where we build up the tension/(then we get really quiet)/Then we stop being quiet/And repeat the title 'Commentary'". It’s even evident in the epilogue number that follows, in which extra-with-a-lisp Steve sings a completely isolated song filled with lots of 'S's that is about whether or not he was only chosen to sing the song because of his lisp.

It all sounds very self-indulgent, and it absolutely is, but that’s the point. Commentary tracks are, by their nature, self-indulgent, and the Whedons/Tancharoen exploit that to push the format to extremes. Of course, there’s a limit, and the concept reaches exactly that shortly before these final songs when Neil finds himself in the recording booth alone and sees it as an opportunity to showcase his real-life musical theatre talents with no one to get in his way. But the song increasingly derails the longer it goes on as Neil finds himself presented with too many options and nothing to provide him with structure. He goes from singing "No more writers to whine/Now the whole show is mine" to "I can do all of their jobs/I can just play with these knobs" as his voice becomes accidentally modulated beyond comprehension. When it comes to actually taking on the responsibility of carrying the whole show, he fails spectacularly: "Look at that shot/We used... cameras/There’s a boom guy in frame/He was great, what’s his name?". And things quickly descend from there as Neil becomes overwhelmed by endless choices without any writers telling him what to do. Soon enough he finds himself "lost and alone", wondering what the controls do, all while the music duplicates his chaos and confusion until he is just wailing "What’s with all these chords?/What’s with all these weird chords".

So far, so wacky song that’s zany, but there’s an underlying truth about the nature of art here that goes back to the original reason for making Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in the first place. Written during the WGA Strike, the internet mini-series was originally designed as a way to prove that creative types can produce great things without studio involvement, although, because it wasn’t released until after the strike had ended, the message got a little lost along the way.

Here though, the importance of writers is clear, and while frequent lines and songs are having fun with the idea, there’s authenticity in the sentiment. Take Joss, who plays an image of himself as a tortured artist throughout - when asked where the idea for Dr Horrible came from, Joss replies in a low grumble: "It came from pain" only for nervous voices to respond "er... let’s not talk to Joss. He’s sad and confusing". The seemingly depressed Joss gets his own song later on in which he bemoans being forced to analyse his own work in order to sell DVDs, arguing that art shouldn’t be treated this way. After all, he argues, when he wrote The Odyssey, Homer "didn’t say, here’s what it means/And here’s a few deleted scenes/Charybdis tested well with teens/He’s not the story". It plays perfectly into the character Joss portrays here - a curmudgeonly intellectual unable to reconcile supposedly sacred art with commercial gain.

It should be noted though that the value of the artistic process here only extends to the writing. In contrast, the actors are shown to be petty and insecure, with Nathan Fillion singing an entire song that tries to convince he is Better Than Neil ("He makes seven figures and gets Emmy nods/I make seven layer bean dip of the gods/I’m also in Halo 3, what are the odds?"). Even the extras assemble together to get in on the vanity act for a chorus of: "If I had the screen time I deserved, you’d see/It’s all about me".

Getting even shorter thrift though is Felicia Day, whose central joke on the track is that she "doesn’t discuss her process" only for her to reveal that there’s not much to discuss. Her song, The Art, written, again, by Joss Whedon, is an attempt to reveal the secrets of her talents: "A gift from Olympus who sends me the muse" only to immediately let the pretence slip with "and shoes", going on to explain "All Penny feels are these 9-inch heels". If you weren’t confident that Felicia and the rest of the cast weren’t in on the joke, it would be outright offensive for her to be sidelined as a "Bimbo" who appears giddy around the handsome Nathan Fillion while struggling to explain her "lofty... art... ness".

Interestingly though, in the same song, Felicia is afforded the opportunity to plug her own online show The Guild, an inspiration for the main Dr Horrible series. This means that, while her talents as an actress are made light of ("My tortured actor’s process/Stand here and do what Joss says"), her talents as a writer and creator in her own right are actively rewarded.

This, ultimately, is the incidental purpose of Commentary! The Musical. While Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was designed to prove a point, this commentary allowed the opportunity to explicitly declare the point again and again: writing is a great, creative talent, perhaps the most important one in the industry. It’s where every initial idea is formulated and developed into whatever it later becomes. Everything starts with the writing, and yet it often goes so undervalued. At least in 2008, that’s apparently how the Whedons+Tancharoen felt.

And they warned us about this right at the start, back in that very first song: "We’ll talk about the writing/We’ll probably say 'It’s great!'". Because of course they will. This is what happens in commentary tracks. Not that you’d really know it among all the jokes and tunes and descriptions of Ninja Ropes ("Simple in its gameplay and yet epic in its scope"). You have to really dig beneath the surface to get to the central message, because everyone has put a lot of effort into making this just wonderfully entertaining first and foremost. And this is why its such an incredible piece of work.

It’s also why it is such an incredibly difficult piece of work to recommend to anyone. I can’t tell you how many people I have told about this musical commentary, but to recommend it is to suggest the person get to know Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog exhaustively first to really get it. And then seek out this actually quite hard-to-find special feature and listen to it, preferably while reading the lyrics. It’s not been an easy sell, but it is, I promise you, absolutely worth the effort.

Cuh. I bet you never knew that a blog post could feel so much like a really, really long history class.

Follow us on Twitter @The_Shiznit for more fun features, film reviews and occasional commentary on what the best type of crisps are.
We are using Patreon to cover our hosting fees. So please consider chucking a few digital pennies our way by clicking on this link. Thanks!

Share This