There's a classic line from 'This is Spinal Tap' that says, "There's a fine line between stupid and clever." Of all the world's heavy metal bands, perhaps none has straddled that distinction more than AC/DC. Half-ridiculous, half kick-ass, the headbangers from Down Under have made a career out of essentially recording the same song over and over, while carrying on a live show that trots out every hard rock cliche in the book. Fueled by lead singer's Brian Johnson's eleven-decibel wail, and schoolboy uniform-clad axe man Angus Young's precision riffing, the entire AC/DC mystique is juvenile sexual fantasy wrapped up in a wall-to-wall blitzkrieg of sonic aggression.
'Live at Donington' finds the band at the beginning of its early-'90s comeback. After a glory period in the late '70s and early '80s (which saw them release such seminal mega-selling LPs as "Back in Black" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap"), AC/DC's repetitive brand of undignified hard rock fell out of favor with the MTV set, who were inexplicably flocking to lame lite-metal outfits like Poison and Warrant instead. But that was before the 1990 LP "The Razor's Edge" and its kicker single "Thunderstruck," a walloping ditty with such a memorable slow-build opener and powerful chorus that even the metalheads that had written off AC/DC could no longer ignore them. The song re-cracked MTV, and the band was quickly back where they belonged, selling out arenas and stadiums around the world.
AC/DC has a reputation for going completely over-the-top in live performances, but 'Donington' is evidence that the band is (visually at least) a fairly down-to-basics affair. Compared to the utterly silly, 'Spinal Tap'-esque theatrics of fellow '80s heavy metal acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, AC/DC is positively blue collar. There are minimal props onstage, and aside from the usual barrage of lights spinning around the audience's heads, this is all about the music and the band's interaction with its fans.
Given the limited sonic palette of your typical AC/DC show (Johnson's dog-hearing vocals and Young's endless riffs are pretty much it), 'Donington' is a sometimes monotonous watch, but it's still thrilling enough in spots that even casual fans like myself can understand why the band is one of the most popular of its ilk. "Thunderstruck" is a prime example, with its simple but spellbinding opening guitar riff (which, for my money, Metallica would rip-off just a year or two later with "Enter Sandman"), which grows into such a gargantuan hook that even I was ready to jump on my couch and start doing air guitar. The setlist also includes at least a half-dozen FM radio classics that simply can't fail to get the fists pumping, including "Hell's Bells," "Dirty Deeds," "Highway to Hell" and the immortal "You Shook Me All Night Long." Though I frequently thought about hitting my remote's fast forward button through some of the lesser-known "Razor's Edge" tracks that peppered the first half of the show (only "Moneytalks" stands out as an A-list single), the last half-hour of 'Live at Donington' is a veritable hit parade of hard rock.
As a filmed spectacle, 'Live at Donington' is likewise as workmanlike as the music. Famed video director David Mallet orchestrated over a dozen 35mm cameras to capture the event, one that is entirely lacking in modern embellishments (no jumbotron LCD screens or cavalcade of dancers here). However, the shot-on-film sheen gives 'Donington' a cinematic quality that's far superior to most of the cheesy, caught-on-videotape concert extravaganzas that so blighted the era. No matter -- an AC/DC show is not about gimmicks anyway, but straight-ahead rock played for the fans with little pretension. 'Live at Donington' perfectly captures that aesthetic, and for band's still-thriving cult of admirers, that should be more than enough.
The 18-strong setlist includes: 01. "Thunderstruck" / 02. "Shoot To Thrill" / 03. "Back In Black" / 04. "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be" / 05. "Heatseeker" / 06. "Fire Your Guns" / 07. "Jailbreak" / 08. "The Jack" / 09. "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" / 10. "Moneytalks" / 11. "Hells Bells" / 12. "High Voltage" / 13. "Whole Lotta Rosie" / 14. "You Shook Me All Night Long" / 15. "T.N.T." / 16. "Let There Be Rock" / 17. "Highway To Hell" / 18. "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)"
'AC/DC: Live at Donington' makes its long-awaited high-def debut on Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (framed at 1.78:1). The disc's marketing materials and box art promote the fact that this transfer comes from a remastered source, but to be honest, the final result just doesn't look all that great. Shot on 35mm film (rare for a concert release, as most are direct-to-video affairs), 'Live at Donington' does have a more cinematic look than most music flicks, but this transfer is still quite rough around the edges.
The source has been cleaned up to eliminate most major blemishes such as dirt, speckles, and the like. Unfortunately, the source is still inconsistent, with good blacks that are faded in patches, and contrast that looks alternately too hot or too flat at times (due to wildly diverse lighting). Colors are fairly vibrant, but here too they waver in consistency and intensity. There is still some grain, but it adds to the cinematic quality of the spectacle and isn’t excessive.
Considering the fact that this is a 15-year-old document of a live event, one has to take the circumstances of the production into consideration. As such, detail and depth go from very good (especially on close-ups, which can be quite powerful) to mediocre (particularly on long shots of the fog-covered stage, which look fuzzy and indistinct). This is a solid AVC encode, however, with only slight noise and a few minor instances of posterization during shots with pulsing light effects. All in all, a good transfer of difficult source material, but not exceptional.
This is where 'Live in Donington' really kicks ass. This uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) is a whopper. It delivers everything you want from an AC/DC live recording -- stomping bass, excellent fidelity, and ear-piercing highs on the vocals. (Note there are also PCM 2.0 Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround options, but the PCM 5.1 track is the way to go.)
The audio has been clearly remixed, producing excellent isolation of the instruments to specific channels. 'Live in Donington' has the palpable quality of the best concert soundtracks, making you feel as though you’re sitting in a great seat smack in the middle of the show floor. Attenuation of sound, timbre, and fidelity is top-notch, and ambient crowd noise is perfectly dispersed around the soundfield (the sing-alongs are particularly exciting).
Thankfully, dynamic range is also not overbearing, with the high-end never cracking or sounding too brittle or harsh (quite an achievement considering the fact that Brian Johnson's vocals could makes a dog’s ears bleed. Low bass is also fantastic, with the subwoofer kicking in right from the opening strains of "Thunderstruck." The source elements have also been nicely cleaned up, with no noticeable variances in audio volume or other imperfections. This is a first-class, five-star soundtrack all the way.
This Blu-ray of 'Live at Donington' comes a good deal after the standard-def DVD was released back in 2003, so the recycled batch of extras will probably be familiar to AC/DC fans. Still, they hold up and are well worth checking out if you don't already own the DVD. (Note: There are no subtitle options on any of the bonus features.)
'AC/DC: Live at Donington' is a great document of a vintage renaissance period in the band's career. It's a professional but still vital performance, and one excellently captured by veteran music video director David Mallet. This Blu-ray is a sharp high-def release as well, with good video and even better audio, plus some cool supplements. This is a must for any self-respecting AC/DC fan, or anyone who just loves a good, loud rock concert in high-def.