As much an ode to a bygone era as it is a profile on the machines that drove it, Rewind This! fondly looks back at the VHS boom of the 80s and 90s and its impact on media, fandom, and society. Director Josh Johnson uses recent interviews and archival footage (most transferred from grainy VHS tapes) to trace the rise of VHS in our culture, its demise at the hands of digital media and distribution, and the acolytes it left behind. Rewind This! isn’t just an excuse for a clip and box art delivery system of cult films and forgotten WTF gems; it’s also a clever examination of changing attitudes in our culture — and just happens to have more than a few scenes of Japanese pornography.
Johnson interviews various filmmakers, journalists, and aficionados in his exploration of what home video really meant to the world. The invention of the VCR gave rise to the video rental store, a rapid boom that necessitated lots of content to cover all of the shelves. This, in turn, led to production companies and studios that would churn out product, usually not good movies, but something with a hook and flashy box art that rarely had anything to do with the movie inside. Johnson also charts how the national chains consumed independently-owned video stores. Collections of oddities and future cult films were replaced by a homogenized focus on the mainstream — at least before the format became obsolete and the business model overtaken by streaming and subscription services.
Rewind This! looks at many different elements that were unique upon the invention and widespread adoption of the VCR. Elements include the role of porn in VHS’s success over the Betamax format, the burgeoning filmmakers that shot movies on video instead of film, and the subculture that exists today of collectors with their hundreds of videos kept out of nostalgia and preservation. With a scope this wide, some of the pacing and focus suffers and the film lags in parts. Occasionally it feels like multiple people are making the same points repeatedly.
But many of the interviewees are engaging, especially directors Frank Henenlotter and, the breakout star of the documentary, David “The Rock” Nelson. Henenlotter reveals how instrumental a lot of the cult horror films were in leading the way to VHS’s success, before also lamenting how boring Criterion Collection cover art is compared to the Frankenhooker box that screeched “Wanna Date?” when you pressed a button. Nelson’s excitement is infectious, especially when he encourages budding filmmakers to just go out there and make movies and not listen to what anyone, especially his mom, has to say about it.
Some of the collectors, with their vast libraries of videotapes, occasionally posit VHS as a parallel to the resurgence of vinyl, choosing an older technology to reconnect with a work of art. However, even the acolytes acknowledge it is an inferior format for image and sound resolution, whereas vinyl has its share of champions. But Johnson wisely pivots into discussing how these inferior copies are all we have left of some films. Many movies never made the format change from VHS to DVD, and less will go from DVD to digital; all those Dorf movies will be lost in time like tears in the rain.
Rewind This! is an engaging, educational look at a period in American culture that ended with a whimper but whose effects we will feel for decades to come. It is occasionally repetitive or too far-reaching in its discussions, but that’s the risk filmmakers take when approaching a subject this wide in scope and impact. There are many great clips from these forgotten video gems that would be bizarre no matter what context was provided. Johnson has made a film that will generate a lot of memories and discussions, not unlike the kind people used to have once upon a time at the video store on a Friday night.