Brighter colors and clearer sound bring new life to ''Fiddler on the Roof,'' ''The Sound of Music,'' and more

By Steve Daly and David Everitt
October 04, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Digitally Remastered!” So crow the boxes of such current video reissues as E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Fiddler on the Roof, It’s a Wonderful Life, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. But are these repackaged movies really more alive than ever with improved sound and picture, or are the hills just echoing with hype?

For one thing, VHS cassettes aren’t even a digital format (like CDs); they’re perishable analogue (like audiotapes), so the videos you take home are inferior translations of new digital masters. (The master copies themselves are designated digital because the machines that make them record information as ones and zeros — that is, digits.) In other words, the biggest benefit of a digital master isn’t to video collectors; it’s to the labels, which can crank out copies onto VHS — and any future formats — ad infinitum from the same non-deteriorating template.

But remastered VHS tapes can still look startlingly improved. For proof, just compare MGM/UA’s old video version of Fiddler on the Roof (released in 1988) with the newly remastered edition. The remixed soundtrack has a directional quality not heard in previous video copies (provided you play it on a hi-fi VCR through stereo or surround-sound speakers), and the sepia-saturated colors are far richer. Not too rich, according to Fiddler director Norman Jewison, who says he had to stop technicians from brightening the movie’s original brownish tones. ”Many times,” Jewison says, ”they’ll do a remastering job and they just don’t contact the filmmaker, and it’s not as good as it could be.”

Ironically, many of this season’s VHS remasters, especially those emblazoned with the THX seal, began as special-edition laserdiscs. Discs can show off the spruce-up work in much more detail than tape can, with resolution nearly twice as sharp and color accuracy that puts tape to shame. Not that the Emerald City doesn’t truly look brighter than ever on MGM/UA’s new Oz tape, or that Julie Andrews doesn’t frolic in greener-than-before Austrian hills in FoxVideo’s Sound of Music cassette. It’s just that not all the high-tech notes are getting through. Which leads Lancelot Braithwaite, technical editor for Video magazine, to conclude that finicky digital remastering done exclusively for inherently mushy VHS tape is ”almost a waste of time.” Well, maybe — but it certainly helps make dough, dear.