“Play ‘Candy Colored Clown.’”
With that command, issued by Dennis Hopper in the 1986 film Blue Velvet, Roy Orbison’s career was reborn. While Orbison didn’t authorize the use of his song “In Dreams” (which opens with the line “a candy-colored clown they call the sandman”), its memorable appearances in the cult film — in one scene, lip-synched by a creepy Dean Stockwell; in another, recited as a threat by Hopper while beating up Kyle Maclachlan — revived an interest in the ’60s singer.
Although initially disturbed, Orbison was quick to respond, issuing In Dreams: The Greatest Hits in 1987, then capping off the year with a televised comeback concert at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, with support from a dozen or so celebrity guests.
The Cinemax special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night was a smash both on television and home video, paving the way for his 1989 hit “You Got It” (his first Top 10 appearance since 1964), as well as his tenure with supergroup the Traveling Wilburys.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the concert’s taping, the late singer’s youngest son, Alex Orbison, has re-edited the footage from that show — much of which has never been seen before — and reordered it to reflect the night’s actual set list. The result, Roy Orbison: Black & White Night 30, is now available from Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings in a dual CD/DVD set featuring liner notes by Roy Orbison, Jr.
In Black & White Night 30 (its title refers to the retro monochrome cinematography), Orbison performs 16 of his greatest hits, plus a then-new song penned for him by Elvis Costello, “The Comedians.” Costello is one of many special guests on hand that night acting as Orbison’s backing group. Other ringers include Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, Steven Soles, J.D. Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jennifer Warnes, and Elvis Presley’s TCB Band (who provide the real musical backbone).
Most of the guests are content to blend into the background, living out the dream of performing with a musical hero and contributing their star power. The exception is Springsteen showboating through “Uptown” and “Dream Baby,” and the six-way guitar orgy (which nevertheless manages to omit Raitt) on “Oh, Pretty Woman.”
Even so, there’s no question that Orbison is the man of the hour. At first, the audience applauds tentatively, as if unsure of how well this has-been can hold up. But when Orbison nails the falsetto on opener “Only the Lonely,” or breaks out recently revived songs “In Dreams” and “Blue Bayou” (the latter familiar through Linda Ronstadt’s more recent version), the crowd warms into genuine enthusiasm. Nostalgia and the aura of celebrity may have gotten them into the seats, but Orbison ably proves he hasn’t lost any of his vocal power or charisma.
For anyone familiar with the special from its frequent airings during PBS pledge drives, the most striking thing about Black & White Night 30 is how much more visually varied it is from the original. Alex Orbison and co-editor Luke Chalk combed through seven cameras’ worth of footage, adding in new angles and set-ups that broaden the visual scope. (As pointless and grainy as most of added shots of the audience are, it’s worth it for the glimpse of Billy Idol headbanging along.)
The younger Orbison also restores “Blue Angel” and an alternate version of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” both of which were cut from the original broadcast and have never before appeared on DVD. Lastly, the performance is capped off with a previously unreleased five-song “secret show,” recorded after the audience left until the film ran out.
In addition to the DVD of the performance, the set includes a CD with audio from the main show, as well as a download code for the five “secret show” songs. The DVD also features a 33-minute documentary that cuts together rehearsal footage and interview snippets with the celebrity guests recounting Orbison’s influence. The documentary is mostly non-essential, but it does provide an intriguing glimpse into how a concert this ambitious and star-packed could possibly be coordinated.
The original A Black and White Night aired in January 1988. In December, Orbison would suffer a fatal heart attack at only 52 years old. In that last year of his life, however, he resumed touring to large crowds, released the hit album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, and recorded the solo album Mystery Girl, which would make the Top 5 after his death.
Much of his latter-day success can be credited to A Black and White Night reminding the public (as well as celebrity collaborators) of Orbison’s immense talent and influence after decades in obscurity. Black & White Night 30, which will also air this season on PBS, seeks to do the same on a smaller scale, refreshing Orbison’s classic songs and performances and returning him to the spotlight.
To get your copy of Roy Orbison’s A Black and White Night 30, head over to Amazon.