August 18, 2008

 

DISC OF THE MONTH

All You Need Is Love

(Voiceprint/MVD)

In 1976, British television began airing All You Need Is Love, a seventeen-part, fifteen-hour docu-miniseries about the history of 20th century popular music, from the advent of jazz to the pinnacle of arena-rock. Filmmaker Tony Palmer solicited opinions from veteran show business types and young bucks alike about where music had been and where they thought it was going. (Given that the series was shot before the punk revolution gained traction in the UK, not that many correspondents were especially enthusiastic.) All You Need Is Love mixes stock footage with original material—the latter shot mostly in tight close-ups, providing a rare intimate look at pop and rock legends—and if all the documentary offered were electrifying performances by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, that would be enough to recommend it. But All You Need Is Love is also unusually thoughtful and thorough for a TV production. Palmer approaches the project with an attitude pitched halfway between skeptic and true believer, and mostly allows his insiders to serve as guides. Liberace walks viewers through an analysis of vaudeville and music hall; Stephen Sondheim talks about operetta and Broadway; Lester Bangs gripes about the excesses and vapidity of the glitter-rock era, and so on. Palmer never clarifies whether he agrees with his hosts and interviewees, which can be confounding at times. Are Roxy Music really meant to be lumped in with Gary Glitter? Is Elton John really as shallow as Bangs claims? Is Bob Marley meant to be a counter-example to the failings of '70s pop, or an example of it? In a way though, Palmer's ambiguity makes All You Need Is Love even more provocative. And given how comprehensive the series is, even the most devout music buff can learn something from this, one of the most indispensable DVD releases of the year. Grade: A

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Radiohead reportedly had no input on the DVD compilation The Best Of (Capitol) and watching these 19 videos—which trace the history of the band in chronological order, from Pablo Honey to Hail To The Thief—it's hard not to speculate on how the band would've approached the project if they'd been in charge. Would they have cut all those videos from their early days, when Thom Yorke smiled a lot and sported long, slicked-back, dyed-blonde hair? Would they have insisted that the video quality be cleaned up from the murky, saturated fog that the disc currently offers? (Or would they have made it murkier?) Even with the cruddy image and lack of extras or context, The Best Of is still a stunner, tracing the evolution of a band that quickly evolved from faceless post-grunge to something so visionary that top-flight video artists like Paul Cunningham, Jonathan Glazer and Michel Gondry were inspired to create clips as startling, stark and beautiful as the music accompanying them. Grade: A-

Unlike Radiohead, the members of Daft Punk have full control of their feature film Electroma (Vice), an arid 70-minute allegory reminiscent of the arty Euro-cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni and Claire Denis (only with more robots). The two DP-ers dress in metallic gear and drive across the country, passing by similarly mechanical citizens while proceeding to an appointment that will make them human. There's no dialogue, and the soundtrack is devoid of any actual Daft Punk songs—though it makes good use of the likes of Brian Eno and Todd Rundgren—so DP fans with an aversion to pretentious midnight-movie fare should probably steer clear. But those with an affinity for the odd and the avant-garde might be surprised by how striking Electroma is, both visually and thematically. Grade: B-

It may not seem like as big a deal as Columbia's anniversary box set of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run a few years back, but in its own way, Billy Joel's The Stranger is every bit as enduring a pop record as Born To Run is a rock record, and The Stranger: 30th Anniversary Edition (Columbia Legacy) is just as welcome a package. Disc one contains the original album, and disc two contains a 1977 Carnegie Hall concert, but it's disc three that's the box's selling point. The third disc, a DVD, includes a 50-minute set recorded in 1978 for The Old Grey Whistle Test, plus the two promo clips Joel shot for The Stranger, and a new 30-minute documentary looking back on the making of the album. In the documentary, Joel reflects on New York's wild summer of '77, and how recording the album saved a career that was going nowhere. Meanwhile, in the Old Grey Whistle Test footage, Joel shows what a slick entertainer he'd become by the end of the '70s, and what a crack band he'd put together. Looking frizzy-haired and somewhat wild-eyed, Joel barrels through his earlier non-hits and a smattering of Stranger tracks. He pauses before "New York State Of Mind" to put on his shades and do a Ray Charles impression—a shtick that was still new back then, and that Joel looks so happy to be doing it in front of an appreciative audience for a change. Grade: A-

Of the heaps of concert footage available to The Clash Live: Revolution Rock (Epic/Legacy) compiler Don Letts, a longtime Mick Jones associate, narrows it all down to 24 songs and a little more than an hour—and for the most part sticks with the full versions of performances he excerpted in his 2000 documentary The Clash: Westway To The World. The Clash deserves a more thorough, less scattered live-video archive someday, but Revolution Rock does provide a handy crash-course in appreciating the band's tightest, sweatiest triumphs. The disc is worth it for the 1980 performance of "Clampdown" alone: Joe Strummer shudders and seethes into a noisy breakdown before Mick Jones, Topper Headon, and Paul Simonon slam it all back together. Even when The Clash wasn't frighteningly precise, instinct and conviction covered the gaps—especially on a gloriously dub-smeared "The Guns Of Brixton." (Note: Be sure to watch this without the mouth-breathing narration, read by someone who's been taking too many uppers and reading too much NME.) Grade: B+

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In 1986, Midnight Oil joined wall-rattling aboriginal rockers Warumpi Band for a set of shows in the outback they dubbed the "Black Fella/White Fella Tour." The performances and the preparation were recorded for a documentary, and that documentary has been appended to Sony Legacy's reissue of Midnight Oil's international breakthrough Diesel And Dust. The documentary would be more valuable if it featured more complete performances—especially by the incendiary, less-well-known-in-the-US Warumpis—and less of the Oils rehearsing "The Dead Heart" over and over. Still the incongruity of a band as powerful and charismatic as Midnight Oil banging out their hits in front of a few dozen people outside of a dusty shack remains a potent representation of the gulf between European privilege and the poverty of the natives they bilked. Grade: B

Though Robyn Hitchcock has spent much of the last 30-plus years singing offbeat pop songs about ordinary folks responding to strange situations, his fans know that there have always been rich layers beneath the sometimes trippy, goofy lyrics. (Here's a hint: A train is never just a train.) In the hour-long documentary Sex, Food, Death…And Insects (Sundance/A&E;) the members of Hitchcock's current band The Venus 3—including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck—talk about what they've gotten out of Hitchcock's music over the years. And Hitchcock has a go too, speaking surprisingly openly about his methods and his meanings. In between the interview segments, director John Edginton shows Hitchcock and the band working casually on some new material, some of which doesn't even have fixed lyrics yet. And during the interviews, the members of The Venus 3 delve into what it means to be a professional musician, working in support of an iconoclast. (This gives Buck the chance to complain some about the working habits of his regular band.) Because this film is more a salute to Hitchcock than a proper documentary, it lacks some necessary depth, but it's still a real treat for the Hitchcock faithful. Grade: B

Unlike Dick Cavett, whose probative interviews with pop culture icons were usually cut with heavy doses of Cavett's own smug self-satisfaction, Tom Snyder chatted with rock stars as though he were an ignorant-but-persistent guest at a dinner party. The two-disc DVD set The Tomorrow Show: John, Paul, Tom & Ringo (Shout! Factory) contains lengthy televised conversations with John Lennon (from 1975, and rebroadcast with additional material the night after Lennon's 1980 murder), Paul McCartney (from 1979, conducted via satellite), and Ringo Starr (from 1981, shot in Starr's LA home, with both Starr and Snyder dressed in leisurewear). In each, Snyder asks the ex-Beatles questions, then refuses to take their answers at face value, pushing further to get Lennon to explain what he means when he says The Beatles broke up because they were "bored," or McCartney to say what led to kids trampling each other to death at a Who concert, or Starr to point out that he's only funny in interviews, not on his own. Snyder's clueless act can be annoying at times—and borderline disrespectful—but it's also highly effective at getting three of the most-interviewed figures of the '60s and '70s to go a little deeper than their usual pat answers. Grade: A

Although the packaging for the triple-disc DVD set Don't Forget The Motorcity (MVD) carefully tries to avoid explaining its contents, Motown fans should be warned that the "100 videos" contained within feature neither original Motown recordings nor performances from the label's glory days. Most of the songs here—and the video footage that accompanies them—were concocted in the early '90s by British producer/mogul Ian Levine, who persuaded dozens of Motown legends to add their vocals to club-ready electro-pop tracks. Most of the music is generic sub-house with a drop of Northern Soul, but the likes of Billy Preston, Mary Wells, Brenda Holloway, Syreeta and Edwin Starr are all game, and in a way, this DVD is an historical document—just not of the time that most music fans would prefer to see preserved. Grade: B

When the UK pub-rock scene dissipated into punk rock, some acts made the transition with no trouble, some hung it up altogether, and some soldiered on without ever finding a clear place in the new pop order. London's electrifying neo-garage qunitet The Inmates were part of a wave of pub/punk bands that hearkened back to the '60s mod movement. They were also one of the few to have some moderate chart success at the end of the '70s (most notably with a cover of The Standells' "Dirty Water"). But because The Inmates' doggedly retro sound lacked any attempt to provide a contemporary edge or insight, they never broke beyond the level of beloved club band. (They were sort of Britain's answer to The Fleshtones.) The DVD Back In History: Live 1980 (MVD/O-Rama) includes two short, tinny, murky-looking gigs from The Inmates' heyday, and while it won't make them belated superstars, anyone who likes to see hard-driving rock bands work up a sweat in cramped clubs should enjoy this disc's visceral kick. Grade: B+

Willie Nile's 2006 album Streets Of New York was a welcome return to form for the veteran rock singer-songwriter, though as always, Nile's catchy, witty songs about New York nightlife and furtive romance were undercut some by his flat, raspy, nasal voice. The DVD Live From The Streets Of New York (00:02:59) is in some ways superior to the album, because Nile's vocals are more expressive when he has to press to be heard over his band's clanky din. This live DVD sounds great, looks great, and should appeal to those who romanticize the New York rock scene of the late '70s, when punk, new wave and straightforward rock all co-existed and flourished. Grade: B+

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore provides the soundtrack to Extra Action (And Extra Hardcore) (MVD), an assortment of erotic modeling sessions filmed by NYC punk photographer Richard Kern. Moore's music is dissonant, ominous and perversely seductive, as befits a series of short, brightly lit videos of normal-looking hipster chicks stripping off their lingerie and masturbating. Grade: B-

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