Original Cast Album: Company is a D. A. Pennebaker film that was intended to kick off a TV series about how original cast albums for Broadway shows were recorded. The pilot is all that was ever shot, and unless you are a massive Stephen Sondheim or musical theatre fan you kind of see why after watching the 58 minutes of footage on display.
It has a nice warm fuzzy PBS ’70s aesthetic, which is very appealing, but I just didn’t find the content engaging. Pennebaker has made fantastic documentaries about people who I’m not interested in: his classic documentary Don’t Look Back on Bob Dylan is a prime example, it’s absolutely brilliant, and I’m not even a Dylan fan. Company is similar in that it’s a fly-on-the-wall view, but you don’t have much of a journey to follow. The Dylan doc is about his UK tour, so it’s more eventful, but this is mainly people in a recording studio, recording really obnoxious songs.
The film’s real highlights are as follows: A. Sondheim’s black turtleneck, and B. Sondheim being a bit of a dick to everyone (of course, Dylan is also a massive dick in Don’t Look Back). That’s amusing for 10 minutes, but when the film’s focus is just the performers capturing their own performances in the studio, the rest isn’t very interesting. Godard pulled the same trick off surprisingly well with his Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One), but Godard added all this gonzo agitprop bullshit to liven things up.
I’m surprised that this wasn’t just an extra on one of the main Pennebaker releases from Criterion, but I’m sure Sondheim and musical theatre fanatics will have a field day with it. If you want to delve deep into Pennebaker’s work, I would start with Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop or The War Room, or even his more obscure Town Bloody Hall, where Norman Mailer gets publicly castrated by some famous feminists in very amusing fashion.
The disc includes two commentaries, including a new one from Sondheim and one from 2001 featuring director D. A. Pennebaker, actor Elaine Stritch, and Broadway producer and director Harold Prince. There is also a new conversation among Sondheim, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and critic and television producer Frank Rich; an additional interview with Tunick; and never-before-heard audio excerpts from interviews with Stritch and Prince, which were conducted by Pennebaker and Hegedus in 2001. The best extra, which is actually better than the film, is the Documentary Now! episode that spoofs the film: “Original Cast Album: ‘Co-Op’.” It is so spot-on that it makes ever taking the original film seriously again completely pointless. The cast and crew of that episode also do a Zoom reunion. The booklet includes an essay from author Mark Harris.