The TV channel Arte commemorates the music legend Roy Orbison with a film portrait rich in anecdotes.
It sounds like a dream: Bruce Springsteen is sitting next to Elvis Costello and playing his guitar parts obediently from sight. In the back are Bonnie Raitt, KD Lang, Jennifer Warnes, Jackson Brown, JD Souther and make up the backing chorus. Tom Waits then also speaks up.
In fact, the aforementioned ladies and gentlemen took the time to join admired and highly respected colleague Roy Orbison in a concert for USA cable channel Cinemax. The recording entitled “Black and White Night” can be seen on Arte on Friday (5 August). It is also available in the media library.
Arte-TV: Roy Orbison – A heart project
The show is preceded by a portrait of the legendary musician, who died unexpectedly and much too early of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 52. In a phase in which he experienced a kind of second spring. On a whim, friends George Harrison and Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra had hypothetically put a band together. Which actually came together, with the incredible cast of Tom Petty, loner Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.
The quintet happily set about recording a few titles under the name The Traveling Wilburys. The result was a hit album and two top ten singles. In the follow-up project, the four sadly had to do without the revered master.
Arte-TV – The right time, the right place
By today’s visual media standards, Roy Kelton Orbison wasn’t born a pop star. Chubby cheeks, a little plump in later years, eyes hidden behind thick, tinted glasses. And the man didn’t move when he was on stage. Notable for a contemporary of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard who loved playing the wild man on stage.
Roy Orbison shares the early days at Sun Studio in Memphis with Elvis Presley and Lewis. There he applied with a composition of his own, and the owner Sam Phillips once again had the right instinct. Another Sun artist from the very beginning was Johnny Cash, who remembers his colleague in detail in director Steve Cole’s film portrait.
Roy Orbison: The punk and the romantic (Arte-TV)
Documentaries composed of scenes with talking heads are often full of gap fillers and unedifying. Cole, however, assembles statements from people who have more to contribute than just hymns of praise. It’s surprising, for example, that Steve Jones, formerly the guitarist for the punk band The Sex Pistols, admits to his fondness for Orbison songs.
Jeff Lynne explains how Orbison’s compositions combine blue notes and operatic voice in an unprecedented blend. Which, by the way, makes him a forerunner of Queen and specifically Freddy Mercury. Elvis Costello expertly compares the structural similarities in songs by Robert Schumann and Roy Orbison.
Roy Orbison: Unmistakable tenor (Arte-TV)
Bono shares the anecdote of how Orbison surprisingly signed up after a U2 concert. The band members thought it was a joke, but then he stood in the door and announced that he had enjoyed the performance very much, whereupon he modestly asked if they would like to compose something together. The boys, who were still very young at the time, must have thought they had somehow gotten on a drug trip.
Orbison’s biography is brought to life through archive material and the stories of contemporary witnesses who were close to him. Artist supervisor Tony King recalls Orbison’s performances: “He just stood there and sang.” It didn’t take more than that distinctive tenor voice with the impressive range. Songs like “Blue Angel”, “Running Scared”, “Only the Lonely”, “Cryin'” became world hits and timeless classics. Orbison’s songs are covered and used in many films. David Lynch used “In Dreams” for an iconic scene in “Blue Velvet”, “Oh, Pretty Woman” gave the title to the film of the same name.
Arte-TV: Roy Orbison – With family on tour
Witnesses include Orbison’s widow Barbara, Olivia Harrison and Gerry Marsden of Gerry & The Pacemakers, who toured with the US colleague and the Beatles. At the time of filming, he was still amazed at the frugal demeanor of scandal-free husband and multiple father Orbison, who usually took his family and nanny with him on tours: “We lay in bed hungover and he wandered over the hills.”
Roy Orbison on Arte TV
“From Pretty Woman to Only the Lonely: Rock Legend Roy Orbison,” Friday, August 5, 9:55 p.m. (Arte)
“Roy Orbison: Black and White Night,” Friday, August 5, 10:50 p.m. (Arte)
Both contributions are also available in the Arte media library.
Marsden has since passed away, as has interviewee Robin Gibb and Tom Petty, who played in the background as a musician. Arte dates the film entry to 2021, but most of the footage is from Steve Cole’s 2008 film Roy Orbison: The ‘Big O’ in Britain, a British BBC production. (Harold Keller)