The original From Bedrooms to Billions documentary by Anthony and Nicola Caulfield was very successful, focussing on the early days of the industry from the early 80s to the mid 90s. They have now followed that up with from Bedrooms to Billions: the Amiga Years – a new two and a half hour documentary that looks at Commodore’s massively popular 16 bit computer.
The original film featured talking head interviews with major players early industry interspersed with archive footage. It was well received by fans and the Caulfields have clearly taken the line “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” for this follow up.
This proves to be a strength and a weakness. Adopting the same approach means viewers who enjoyed the first film can settle into The Amiga Years knowing what to expect. On the other hand, it sometimes leaves it feeling a little too-familiar and a touch uninspired.
Content-wise, the Caulfields certainly can’t be accused of skimping on content. They have managed to bag interviews with a whole range of people who were involved in the development of the Amiga as a computer, game developers of the time or staff of Commodore (including Commodore UK’s David Pleasance, whose promised “warts and all” account has recently been funded on Kickstarter). This makes for a massive amount of content, reflected in the run time which is 30 minutes longer than its predecessor.
The wealth of material is handled extremely well, organised and presented in a logical and coherent manner that gives the film a strong narrative. It pulls together a fantastic amount of archive footage, most of which I’d not seen before. Whether it is images and film from the Amiga’s early development or footage showing the computer’s many ground-breaking (and breath-taking) games, there is plenty to feast your eyes on. These sections really help the documentary to come alive and help to remind you (as if you needed it!) of how incredible the Amiga was for its time.
As with the previous film, there is a slightly uneven feel to the screen time given to various interviewees. Some seem to pop up every 2 minutes and give lengthy chunks of dialogue, others pop up only rarely and are limited to a couple of sentences. Of course, this could simply reflect how much individual interviewees were willing/able to contribute, or how insightful their comments were. However, you do feel that some people are given more of a platform than others.
The talking heads format also feels a little overused (possibly given the extended run time). I’d perhaps have liked to have seen a little less of this and a bit more archive footage (although again, I appreciate this is limited by what is available – either in terms of what has survived, or where copyright clearance can be acquired).
Yet despite some flaws in the format, the documentary is never less than interesting and entertaining. Whilst I personally enjoyed some segments more than others, I was never even vaguely tempted to skip any. Again, if I was being critical, the first hour (which focuses on the Amiga’s development) felt a little slow-paved and over-long. It was certainly interesting to hear Amiga legends like the pleasingly bonkers RJ Mical and the late Dave Needle talk about the computer’s development, but there was an occasional tendency to dwell a little too much on technical specifications (which my highly untechnical brain is never capable of understanding!) Again, though, it’s horses for courses – I’m sure there are lots of viewers who will find the recollections of Mical and company fascinating.
Any slackening in pace soon picks up when the documentary shifts its focus to the games (which, let’s be honest is the reason we all had one). This proves a fascinating insight into how programmers managed (or in some cases didn’t manage) the transition from 8 to 16 bit and what a step up the Amiga represented in terms of game design. It’s also here that the documentary is at its strongest visually, with loads of footage of Amiga games showing off this explosion of creativity.
(As a minor sidebar criticism, it would have been good if the games shown could have had captions giving details of their title and publisher. As a retro gamer, it’s fun trying to name the different games as footage flashes up, but unless you’re a walking retro gaming encyclopaedia, you will probably struggle to identify all the footage.)
The Amiga Years probably won’t tell seasoned retro gamers anything they don’t already know about the Amiga, but the extended format and wide range of interviewees allows it to explore some of these stories (such as the Atari/Commodore tug of war over rights to the machine) in greater depth. It also gives you a rare opportunity to hear the tales and anecdotes direct from the horse’s mouth, rather than via a 3rd party magazine or webpage article.
The producers have also done a good balancing act, making the documentary interesting for seasoned retro gamers, whilst remaining accessible for more casual viewers. People with a passing interest in the Amiga who want to recall happy childhood memories will find it as informative and interesting as those with a long-standing interest in the retro gaming history.
Whatever Atari ST owners might say, the Amiga is arguably the most fondly remembered computer of the 16 bit era. This documentary is an fascinating and fitting tribute to a computer whose life was sadly curtailed by the incompetence of Commodore and the rise of the consoles. Whilst there are a few flaws, these are nowhere near enough to detract from a quality production that should be watched by all retro gamers.