Archive for the ‘dvd’ Category

DVD Review: Scarred But Smarter

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Plenty of bands have but one good album in them. In the old days – when record companies were still a thing – it went like this: band forms, usually around the songwriting skills of one or more member. Band gigs hard in obscurity. Band develops local following. Band gets noticed. Band gets signed. Band records album full of songs they’ve been honing to a sharp point for ages. Band releases album, tours heavily (perhaps as opening act) to promote album. Album sells, so band is rushed back into studio to record the followup.

If you follow rock music at all, you can probably write the next few sentences. There’s a reason that phrases like “the difficult second album” and “sophomore slump” exist. As the saying goes, you have your whole like to write the songs for your first album, and then ten months to write the songs for the second one.

Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin somehow managed to avoid that particular pitfall. After releasing their debut – 1986′s Scarred but Smarter, a title that would presciently sum up their career over the ensuing thirty years – they followed up with Whisper Tames the Lion, an equally satisfying album.

Of course things began to go wrong with their third album. By their fifth, they had made some fundamental changes in their style, and for their trouble gained their highest profile to date. But while from an objective point of view (or at least one that doesn’t figure in the band’s earlier material) the harder-rocking sound of Fly Me Courageous is an excellent album, it started the band down a path that they would find unsustainable. To say that they crashed and burned with the next album (1993′s Smoke) is an understatement.

That could have been the end of the band. And it almost was. But they got their shit together, came back more focused than ever, and resumed a career – on their own terms, for the first time in a long time – and continue today.

Sure, summed up like that, the Drivin N Cryin story reads a bit like a VH-1 Behind the Music. And it could be, if told in a manner adhering to that arc: fame, fall, redemption. But in his documentary on the band, Eric von Haessler goes deeper. Scarred But Smarter is a film-length rumination on the nature of fame, a meditation on what is important and why. It’s not overly philosophical in tone, but a mature undercurrent informs the film.

A parade of personalities better known than anyone in the band help tell the story: R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, guys from southern rock sensation Blackberry Smoke, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), renowned producer Anton Fier. And for those (like me) who grew up in Atlanta, many familiar faces and places show up in the film: Michelle Malone, notoriously prickly music critic/book store clerk David T. Lindsay (mentioned but not seen), The Nightporters (Tim Nielsen‘s pre-Drivin N Cryin band), Ty Pennington (a local Drivin’ N Cryin’ fan who’d later make it big as a TV personality), the famous 688 Club. Von Haessler eschews narration, letting the people involved tell the story. Ex-members explain on why they left (or were kicked out), and pretty much everyone takes an unflinching, no-holds-barred approach to recounting their stories. The director weaves it all together with a minimum of visual gimmickry.

There’s lots of music in Scarred But Smarter. And for those new to the band, the selections will help drive home a fundamental truth behind the band’s lack of (by conventional standards) success: they’re all over the place. As Kinney relates near the film’s end, it’s near impossible to pin Drivin N Cryin down stylistically. Folk? Rock? College/indie rock? Hard rock? Southern rock? Yes and no to each of those. One onscreen personality calls them a “punk band,” but that’s probably overreach. What they were and remain is very good, and very underrated. Their 2009 album The Great American Bubble Factor is a winner, and the series of EPs that followed it played to perhaps the band’s greatest strength: their skill in a wide variety of musical idioms.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of Kevn Kinney and his band mates, it’s one similar to the lessons your parents tried to teach you when you were a kid (if you were lucky). Don’t follow the example of the kool kids (read: record company executives). Don’t get involved in dangerous drugs (read: dangerous drugs). Follow your muse, do what you love, and you’ll find success on your own terms. At its heart, that’s the positive message of Scarred But Smarter.

Asheville readers: Drivin N Cryin will play The Altamont on Saturday, March 7. See you there.

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Capsule DVD Reviews, January 2015 Part 2

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Picking up where I left off yesterday, here are four more brief DVD reviews.

Rockin’ the Wall
Most people will agree that the communist regimes that ruled on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain were repressive. What they may or may not agree on is the contention of this film: the manner in which rock’n'roll helped bring about the demise of that system. The fact that rock music was all but banned in Eastern Europe is well-documented; there’s little doubt that the whole rock’n'roll aesthetic was a threat to the power of those repressive governments. The film explores the ways in which that paranoia manifested itself, employing firsthand interviews with people who lived in the then-communist bloc countries. All that said, just why the film chooses as its “rock experts” seems to have more to do with who the filmmakers knew and/or could get ahold of, rather than any specific relevance. How else to explain Mark Stein and Vinny Martell of Vanilla Fudge, Toto‘s David Paich, a guy from Quiet Riot, and members of Atlanta funk band Mother’s Finest? Their contributions are entertaining, but decidedly lightweight when set against the contributions of the people who lived under the communist regimes. Still worth a look.

Carl Palmer – Decade 10th Anniversary
Drummer Carl Palmer is the youngest among the ELP trio; at just shy of 65, he’s five years younger than Keith Emerson, two years younger than Greg Lake. And though all three former member remains busy, it’s Palmer who performs the most. After a long stint in Asia (one that continues to this day) Palmer launched a performing project of his own, called ELP Legacy. As one would expect, this group (The Carl Palmer Band) features Palmer and tow other guys whose names you won’t recognize, and they play music from ELP’s catalog. This DVD documents a 2011 concert in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, part of a music festival. To Palmer’s (and his young bandmates’) credit, the group doesn’t attempt to ape the original versions. First off, there’s no keyboards. So what audiences get instead are interpretations of ELP music in classic power trio format. Lots of thunderous bass, shredding guitar (reinterpreting Emerson’s lightning runs on piano, organ and synthesizer), and – as you’d fully expect form a project with the drummer’s name out front – Carl Palmer front and center. These fresh takes on ELP are welcome, and fans of the band – or at least those with an open mind – should enjoy the show.

Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing Live
This one’s a bit odd, and I’ve seen the word “semi-official” used to describe its status. In 2012, Suzanne Vega released a CD titled Solitude Standing: Live at the Barbican. That concert CD documented a performance from the 25th anniversary of the release of the Solitude Standing album, among Vega’s most admired works. This is not a DVD from that tour. Instead it’s a 2003 concert from Rome, Italy. Yes, Vega does perform “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner,” but so does she at pretty much every show. But once you understand what this DVD is and isn’t, you can enjoy an excellent (and excellently shot and recorded) concert in which Vega fronts a band,sometimes perform solo, and often contextualizes the songs with monologues. It’s a bit annoying for English-only speakers to sit idly by when – after Vega finishes each monologue – a translator repeats it in its entirety in Italian while the singer/guitarist stands patiently. Her acoustic-based readings of such tunes as “When Heroes Go Down” (from her underrated 99°F) have a wholly different feel than their studio counterparts, but they remain excellent. A couple spoken-word pieces show that Vega’s talents extend far beyond mere music.

The Point
In the very early 1970s, animator Fred Wolf put together an animated television special called The Point. Ostensibly aimed at children, The Point was sophisticated enough to appeal to adults as well. While the animation style is crude by 21st century standards, it possesses an undeniable charm. Featuring narration by one Ringo Starr and original songs composed and performed by his pal Harry Nilsson, The Point was a critical and commercial success. The original story came to Nilsson during an acid trip, and while the animated feature is no Yellow Submarine, it has the hip feel of the era’s pop culture animations. “Me and My Arrow” was a big hit single, too. This DVD verion is billed a “Definitive Collector’s Edition,” but (like every version of the film except its original TV broadcast), Dustin Hoffman‘s vocal parts have been wiped and replaced by Ringo. The print is of reasonably good quality, and the story is timeless and endearing. Some brief bonus features discuss the genesis of the project; there’s even a plug for the Who is Harry Nilsson? DVD (I did an extensive interview with that film’s director; click here to read it).

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Capsule DVD Reviews, January 2015 Part 1

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Every so often, I do a set of capsule reviews. Those short-take looks at CDs are a way of clearing my backlog. There’s so much good music out there – so much that I want to tell readers about – that it’s impossible to get to all of it. So the capsule reviews help a bit.

It’s even tougher with music-related DVDs. At least with CDs, I can listen (to a certain extent) while doing other things. But with DVDs, it’s pretty much a case of watching and doing little else. As a result, I have far too many DVDs and Blu-ray discs still awaiting review. To help clear that backlog, I’m applying the capsule review approach to a pile of DVDs that have been languishing far too long on my desk. My standard disclaimer applies: all of these titles deserve a fuller analysis, but it’s this or nothing.

Oil City Confidential: The Story of Dr Feelgood
Pub rockers Dr Feelgood are all but unknown in the USA. Though their musical style led to the rise of new wave (but not really to punk), the defiantly British sensibility of the group pretty much pecluded their sound transating to American ears. The band’s no-bullshit straight-ahead sound is sort of a missing link between, say, The Faces and Graham Parker. Julien Temple brings high production values to this documentary about the band, largely told though they eyes (and ears, and voice) of Wilko Johnson. Temple weaves in film from other sources – archival footage, old British movies – but does so in a way that makes them feel relevant to what’s being discussed. As one of the band recalls, “Bearing in mind what was around at the time – Gary Glitter, Sweet – we must have stuck out like sore thumbs: ‘Oo’s this lot?’” There are no great revelations in the film beyond a sense that Dr Feelgood deserved better. Oil City Confidential is a well-deserved look at the place in history occupied by this overlooked band.

Blowing Fuses Left & Right
Three hours is a rather long running time for a DVD of interviews, but when those interviews are with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton (who passed away in 2009), MC5 singer Rob Tyner (who died in 1991) and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson (who’s still alive), then the run time is warranted. Those guys didn’t do a whole lot of interviews. In the late 1980s, a young fan of Detroit hard rock – 19-year-old Gil Margulis — made a low-budget documentary about the historic Detroit rockers of the late 60s and early 70s. This DVD isn’t that film; instead, it’s a compilation of the interviews with Tyner, Asheton and Thompson. Production values are near-nonexistent: for the most part, a tripod-mounted camera and cheap mic capture the interviews. The subject is nearly-full-frame, and the questions are off-camera and sometimes off-mic. A bit of location shooting shows the the camera operator’s lack of experience. But none of that will matter much to those interested in firsthand recollections of the era.

Tribute to Ron Asheton
In the wake of Ron Asheton ( see above) dying in 2009, his Stooges bandmates mounted a memorial concert in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. This DVD documents that April 2011 concert, and adds in reminiscences from Stooges members, musical guest Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), and Henry Rollins. The concert is well-shot, and the audio is crystalline, showcasing the (ahem) raw power of Asheton’s surviving bandmates. Something’s lacking, of course, without Asheton’s signature guitar style, but the concert is worthwhile nonetheless. The addition of a string section(!) on a few tracks may strike viewers as odd – it certainly did me – but it works better than one might expect.

Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review
I would never advocate that a musician descend into hard drug use in search of his or her muse. And getting clean after years of drug addiction can only be a good thing. That said, for me, Eric Clapton‘s music lost its power after Derek and the Dominos; his subsequent solo work is for me far too lachrymose and lazy. Naturally, this documentary picks up where Eric Clapton: The 1960s Review leaves off. It begins with the Layla material and continues forward, giving the music a fresh new look, and – to my mind – giving it a more studied and thoughtful treatment than it generally deserves. The DVD gives evenhanded, unblinking coverage to Clapton’s drug addiction and subsequent recovery. And as the deacde was peppered with some good work from the guitarist – his work with Delaney and Bonnie, for example – the film is interesting. The Sexy Intellectual people are responsible for a very long list of this kind of documentary, and The 1970s Review is to their high standards. And though the producers didn’t secure Clapton’s cooperation, some archival interview footage tells at least part of the story in his words.

More DVD reviews tomorrow.

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DVD Review: The Complete Truth About De-evolution

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Beginning in the 1970s, DEVO established themselves as among the most effective artists using using the creative tool of video in the musical idiom. Contrasting starkly with the the myth-making and glamor of most other music videos, the work of DEVO is deeply unsettling and provocative. Twenty DEVO music video clips (plus some relevant extras) have been compiled on The Complete Truth About De-evolution.

DEVO’s philosophical sensibility is shot through all of the band’s video work. The concept of de-evolution as used by the group (and from whence comes their name) holds as its central concept the idea that humankind is no longer evolving in a forward direction; instead, we’re on the decline. DEVO has always been as much an art installation as a band; in keeping with the punk aesthetic (the band’s first video clip debuted in 1976) the band employed a DIY musical aesthetic that eschewed virtuosity in favor of a harsh, brittle, discordant and often deceptively simplistic sound. That approach would have certainly been part of the appeal to fellow musical outsider Brian Eno; he produced their first album.

Most of the video clips as collected on The Complete Truth About De-evolution are low-budget affairs; even when the band hit it big and had a Warner Brothers-financed budget, their more costly videos still had an intentionally homegrown look about them. Though professionally executed, the stop-motion sections of “Love Without Anger” (oddly enough, a staple of early 80s MTV) are reminiscent of the crude animation found on early DEVO clips.

And what all of the group’s videos share is that world view that concedes – no, celebrates, really – the idea that everything is shit, that we’re headed for the dustbin of history. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in what may well be DEVO’s finest video clip, the one made to support the song “Beautiful World.” Thick with irony (or sarcasm; your choice), the video displays police beatings, KKK rallies, and atomic detonations, all providing a visual backdrop for lyrics that (on the surface, at least) express what a “sweet romantic place” the world is. With DEVO, satire is always a central element, or at least a tool that’s kept handy.

The early clips – that is, the ones that predate MTV’s summer 1981 launch – have gotten much less exposure, though some of them surfaced on the USA cable network’s night time music-centric program Night Flight. Still, most casual viewers won’t have known that these clips (such as “DEVO Corporate Anthem” and “Jocko Homo”) even exist. And while they’re very different from later, more commercially-oriented material like the tres bizarre “Whip It” video, the band’s bent approach is consistent through all of the clips.

And as seems to be true with most any established band one would care to name, the later songs (“Theme From Doctor Detroit,” for example) don’t measure up to earlier efforts; but with DEVO the quality of the videos never flags. Certainly not “easy viewing” in the manner of easy listening, DEVO music video clips are thought-provoking, entertaining in their own awkward way, and always exceedingly strange. For those qualities along, The Complete Truth About De-evolution is worth viewing. For fans of the band – and/or aficionados of the strange – this DVD is a must-own.

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DVD Review: Looking for Johnny

Monday, January 5th, 2015

One of the less appealing qualities of music culture –both in rock and jazz, at least – is a tendency toward romanticizing certain fallen characters. While there’s no denying the massive contributions of such figures as Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, in death they have assumed oversize reputations that their lives and musical output don’t always justify.

And some figures are lionized in a fashion wholly outsized relative to their deserved stature. Though he’s considered by many a “legend,” the Sex Pistols‘ second bassist Sid Vicious could barely play his instrument, as a singer he wasn’t real great, and as a composer…he simply wasn’t. But it’s part of the punk ethos that he was still somehow great.

That punk mythologizing extends to Johnny Thunders (neé Genzale), but at least in his case – in relative terms – it’s somewhat deserving. Thunders wasn’t a technically gifted guitarist, but he did what he did quite well. What he did was filter Keith Richards-style playing and riffage through a New York punk sensibility, bringing a sharp-edged sound to his work, first with The New York Dolls, then as a solo artist, with The Heartbreakers (no relation to Tom Petty) and briefly with MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer in Gang War.

The title of a new documentary film, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders, would suggest an attempt to make Thunders into a legend, assuming interested parties aren’t already convinced he is one. But in reality, the film takes a reasonably objective look at the man and his work. Looking for Johnny relies to a great deal upon actual audiovisual footage of Thunders (onstage and in interviews) to construct a history that avoids becoming a hagiography. The film never shies away from highlighting Thunders’ serious and seemingly nonstop problems with substance abuse, and avoids romanticizing the drug use into some sort of creative fuel for his art. And it deals relatively straightforwardly and unapologetically with his failings as a human, a spouse, and a band member.

Through interviews with those who knew him well (or as well as anyone could know him), Looking for Johnny attempts to fill in the blanks in the man’s history, to ask and answer the important and too-infrequently asked questions. A few figures, however, are most conspicuous in their absence: New York Dolls lead singer/frontman David Johansen appears nowhere in the film, save in live onstage archival footage.

The so-called mystery surrounding Thunders’ 1991 death in New Orleans is given ample screen time. True or not, the filmmakers want viewers to at least consider the possibility that his death came about at least in part due to his leukemia. The thing is, dead is dead, and avoiding the more lurid rumors surrounding his death in favor of a we’re-not-sure-how point of view doesn’t change the fact that Thunders died at the age of 38.

The filmmaking style is unadorned and largely free of cliché. There are a good number of live and studio performances cut into the film, balancing nicely with the chat. And the no-narrator approach works well, letting the onscreen characters (including Lenny Kaye and Bob Gruen) tell the story from their points of view. Perhaps oddly, all three of Thunders’ managers — Marty Thau, Leee Black Childers and Malcolm McLaren – are now, like Thunders himself, deceased. Thau and Childers died in 2014, so their sessions for Spanish filmmaker Danny Garcia remain among their final onscreen appearances.

Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders is an unpolished, low-budget affair, and it looks like one, but somehow that’s a fitting manner in which to chronicle the life, music and death of a punk icon. Or, if you prefer, a legend.

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Best of 2014: Videos

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

With 1/1/15 mere days away, it’s time for Musoscribe’s annual best-of lists. These are – of course — wholly subjective, and reflect my tastes and interests. I viewed quite a few music-related DVDs this year, and while quite a few were excellent (and none truly awful), four stood out. As it happens, all four concern music of the past, but remain sturdily tooted in the present.

Ian Anderson – Thick as a Brick Live in Iceland
I’ve written a fair amount about Anderson and Jethro Tull on this blog, and have interacted with the man in two (#1 and #2) wide-ranging interviews. This DVD documents a night on his celebrated and successful 2012 tour. I’ve written about Anderson’s strengths and limitations; this tour (and by extension, this DVD/Blu-Ray) makes the best of the former and deal creatively with the latter. Recommended. (Watch for my review of the four-disc WarChild set, coming soon.)

Money for Nothing
This fast-past documentary is tailor-made for the ADD generation: thought it’s packed with images, ideas and information, nothing stays on the screen for more than a few seconds. As such, it suits its subject matter: the rise and fall of the music video as an artistic and commercial medium – exceedingly well.

I Dream of Wires
Speaking or rise and fall, this documentary – presented in a “hardcore edition” that appends the original film with hours of fascinating bonus material – charts the history of the analog modular synthesizer. The film had a premier at a recent Moogfest here in my hometown of Asheville; it received a warm welcome. If you’re at all interested in the electronic side of music where technology and creativity meet, you’ll enjoy this. Note that because of the breadth and depth of its subject, the DVD is best digested in small portions.

The Doors – R-Evolution
These Los Angeles-based legends might not be the first 60s rock act one thinks of when considering intelligent use of the visual medium, but since both Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had backgrounds in film, it makes sense. A passel of rare video clips show the group wriggling free of convention and creating enduring audiovisual works of their own. The quality of the clips here is nothing short of amazing.

Stay tuned for best-of lists covering 2014′s music-related books; concerts; archival and compilation releases; and new music.

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DVD Review: Very Extremely Dangerous

Monday, December 1st, 2014

There are antiheroes, and there are antiheroes. One supposes that Jerry McGill is one. He certainly possesses a primary prerequisite: a worldview that measures everyone and everything though the whatt’s-in-it-for-me lens. I’m hesitant to throw around the terms narcissist and sociopath, but if you have a working knowledge of how those labels apply to a human being, you’ll likely find that the character as portrayed in Very Extremely Dangerous pushes some of those buttons.

McGill was pretty much a footnote in the Sun Records story; he released a 1959 single for the label before flaming out. While he made a brief – and exceedingly menacing – reappearance in William Eggleston‘s Stranded in Canton, a mid 1970s black-and-white film that sought to document the underground scenester vibe of Memphis in those days, McGill spent most of the time between the early 1960s and present day either in jail, on his way to jail, or running/escaping from jail.

And he got into plenty of trouble when he was on the outside. McGill has that particular character type, one that mystifies most of us, but is completely irresistible to a (sad) select few. So it is that his sidekick through many of his misadventures figures largely in Very Extremely Dangerous. So it is, too, that said sidekick is summarily tossed aside – not that by most reasonable standards he didn’t deserve it – and then disappears completely from the narrative. (That he died is a perfunctory postscript; sorry for the spoiler, but like McGill, Very Extremely Dangerous is nothing if not wholly unsentimental.)

McGill has a girlfriend, too, and she’s a major character in the story. But she doesn’t allow her face to be shown on film, suggesting she has some modicum of self-respect and dignity. But her presence in McGill’s story at all strongly suggests otherwise. Meanwhile, McGill, abusive junkie that he is, fails to earn this viewer’s sympathy even as he faces life-threatening illness.

The film is as much about Irish documentarian Paul Duane trying to make the film; this device has been used countless times in films, and it works reasonably well in this example. The viewer is party to the frustrations – and life-threatening situations – that Duane faces in his quest to document McGill and his story. But some viewers may well ask: why bother? McGill is a musician of limited means, and knowing more about him may have the effect of making the viewer less, not more interested in his music. It had that effect upon me.

The film is a collaborative effort between Duane and celebrated music journalist/author Robert Gordon. Gordon himself never appears in the film, though his name (and tapes from his answering machine) figures prominently in the story. Knowing Gordon’s peerless storytelling abilities, one wonders why he is (seemingly) not more involved in the film itself.

Throughout the film, the viewer may find him or herself waiting for that moment of redemption, that denouement in which all things come together to deliver something resembling a happy ending. Or at least some kind of resolution. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will come away from Very Extremely Dangerous very extremely disappointed. View it with an open mind and take the story for what it is, and you may – just maybe – find value in it. You might even like McGill’s music. But you probably won’t like or respect him. If you do, seek help immediately.

(Note: by the film’s end, McGill is – against all odds – still alive. He’s dead now. It’s hard to imagine that he’s missed by many.)

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DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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DVD Review: Ian Anderson – Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland

Monday, October 27th, 2014

In 2012, Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson mounted a tour to promote his latest solo album, Thick As a Brick 2: What Ever Happened to Gerald Bostock? The tour and album both represented a high point in the recent musical activity of the ever-busy Anderson.

I saw the Asheville date of that tour in my hometown, and got the chance to interview Anderson for a print feature in advance of the performance. At the time, however, I reviewed neither the album nor the live show. This new DVD (also available on Blu-Ray) is a document of the show, which is in part a document of the album.

While in the last several years, Anderson’s flute playing has actually improved (we discussed that in our first interview, back in 2007), his vocal ability hasn’t fared so well. In fact, a 2010 DVD (Jethro Tull – Live at Avo Session Basel) vividly illustrates what the ravages of time have done to Anderson’s pipes). Still, as the Thick As a Brick 2 album shows, his songwriting and arrangement skills (and, again, his flute playing) remain sharp, reliable tools.

It is clear that Anderson realizes his strengths and weaknesses. And his solution to this set of challenges is nothing less than inspired: he’s added a new character to the onstage lineup. The Yorkshire-born Ryan O’Donnell was born in 1982, the same year Jethro Tull released their fourtten studio album, The Broadsword and the Beast; around the time of O’Donnel’s fifth birthday, Tull received the dubious honor of a Grammy Award for “best heavy metal album.”

But while the young O’Donnell may not have grown up during the classic era of Jethro Tull (arguably 1970-77), his demonstrably understands and appreciates the Tull aesthetic. Leaping about the stage in a most theatrical fashion – and freed from the demands of having to play an instrument – O’Donnell is able to convey not only the sound of his voice (and let it be said that his vocal texture and phrasing are very similar to that of Anderson in his prime), but the movement and visual flourishes so critical to the narrative of Thick As a Brick 2.

O’Donnell’s onstage presence allows Anderson to have it both ways: he can play his delightful flute parts – including ones that overlay the vocal lines, something he’s obviously never been able to do before now – and he can sing the parts of his signature vocals that lie within his diminished range. And with O’Donnell’s help, it all sounds as good as it possibly can.

Thick As A Brick 2 picks up the story of the child character Gerald Bostock, now fully grown and full of modern malaise. Onstage, Anderson and his team make full use of video clips at key points in the story; these – starring Anderson in one of several character roles – show that in addition to his myriad other skills, the sixty-something Anderson is a fine and natural actor.

Thick As A Brick 2 is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, drama…and lots of good music. Similar to the approach used on the original 1972 Thick As A Brick, the work is presented more or less as a single piece (yet with its sections distinctly titled), and is built around a central musical motif. But unlike, say, Roger Waters‘ three-note riff that represented most of Pink Floyd‘s 1979 The Wall, the Thick As A Brick 2 motif is at its core quite musical, and involved enough to sustain its use across an entire album.

The 2012 performance in Iceland is – by design – nearly identical to the performance I witnessed that same year in Asheville. The choreography dictates that this is so. The first half of the performance is a live reading of the 1972 album; after a brief intermission ,the band returns to present Thick As A Brick 2. And while when I first heard the modern-day sequel (studio version), I sensed that it paled somewhat in comparison to the ’72 album, when the two pieces are performed live, end-to-end, Thick As A Brick 2 benefits greatly. It’s a worthy successor to its predecessor. And with the flawlessly performed, filmed and (courtesy of King Crimson‘s Jakko Jakszyk) audio-recorded DVD Thick As A Brick Live in Iceland, fans of Anderson and Jethro Tull are presented with a must-have purchase. And that’s no mean feat for someone like Anderson, producing vital works some 45 years after releasing his debut album. If you like anything you’ve ever heard from Anderson, you definitely won’t want to sit this one out.

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DVD Review: Money for Nothing

Monday, October 13th, 2014

I approached this DVD with more than a bit of trepidation: would the filmmakers attempt to bestow great and weighty cultural importance upon the music video format? Or would they take a History Channel sort of approach to it, adding melodrama where little actually existed?

I was delightfully surprised when I viewed Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video. The whole affair is aimed squarely at the sort of viewer who’s closely familiar with music videos in general. The 78-minute DVD is paced for the ADD generation(s), with the narrative broken into a long menu of bite-sized pieces, none lasting much longer than two minutes.

Money for Nothing charts the history of the music video via two timelines, two points of view. First, the form itself. After tossing a red herring or three the viewer’s way – suggesting that music videos began with MTV’s broadcast of The Buggles‘ “Video Killed the Radio Star” – the film tells us, hey, wait a minute. The BeatlesA Hard Day’s Night, right? But no: Money for Nothing rightly (if in exceedingly brief fashion) points to Scopitones (from the 1960s) “Soundies” (from the mid ’40s) and finally Walt Disney‘s Fantasia (1940), and even to early animated color films out of Germany in 1933.

But Money for Nothing never goes all academic on the viewer; like the subject it’s chronicling, the film keeps moving, never lingering on any image of idea for more than a brief second. Certainly the arc of MTV’s rise and fall is followed, since the Viacom cable channel was the embodiment of the medium for many years.

Money for Nothing isn’t afraid to chart the downfall of the form, and even makes its own suggestions as to why music videos became moribund on television (and why they still exist, albeit in a different form). The film rightly categorizes music videos as “advertisements,” but concedes that quite often it wasn’t clear what exactly was being sold.

Well, except when it was: fantasy and sex (and often both) are unsurprisingly the top items being pushed by music videos. Music videos have rarely been a means of delivering subtlety, and the film concedes that as well. But neither does Money for Nothing ridicule the form: it seems to suggest that music videos are a bit like a painter’s canvas, or a blank piece of paper: what is done with them depends largely on the artist.

And the “artist” is the focus of the second timeline the film follows: not the music artist, but rather the filmmaker. As the hundreds (literally hundreds) of film clips flicker across the screen, the bottom corner info lists the artist, album, director and year, just like good ol’ MTV did back when it broadcast music videos. And the second timeline explores the work of notable filmmakers. After giving props to the music video heavweights (Godley and Creme chief among them), I was surprised to see the names of so many well known motion picture directors among the credits: Julien Temple and Jonathan Demme, sure. But Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese? Their participation helped legitimize the form. Or did it just help them pay some bills in a lean era? Money for Nothing leaves that call to the viewer.

The DVD isn’t without its flaws. While mentioning The Monkees as a key component in the early history of the music video, no mention is made of Mike Nesmith, the man who pretty much invented the idea of a channel that showed music videos all the time (he sold that idea to Viacom). And no mention is made of Paul Revere and the Raiders, even though they appeared on television mugging and miming to their songs more often than any other musical artist before or since. And while I’m not a particular fan of the videos, not a single clip (nor mention thereof) of the 1980s’ most ubiquitous music video trio, ZZ Top, shows up in Money for Nothing. (They also missed mentioning Todd Rundgren‘s important and pioneering work in music videos, but I’ll give ‘em a pass on that one since he’s not the household name he deserves to be.)

Near its end, Money for Nothing largely concedes that the era of the music video has long since ended, but it makes the case that some interesting work is still being done in the form. (It manages to do so without mentioning YouTube; neat trick, that.) Like the ephemeral and ultimately fun if insubstantial form it chronicles, Money for Nothing isn’t a wholly satisfying film, but it’s the best look at the history of the music video that’s been done so far. Recommended.

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