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December 8, 2009

Rock fans and movie buffs can argue among themselves over the best concert films of all time, but in terms of the quality of the performance, the richness of cinematic style, and just overall awesomeness? Man, it’s hard to top Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense (Palm Pictures). Director Jonathan Demme had the bright idea back in 1983 to eschew the crowd shots and band interviews that had padded out rock-docs since Woodstock. Instead, Stop Making Sense approximates an uninterrupted Talking Heads show, captured by cameras that move fluidly around the front and sides of the stage, matching the rhythm of the music. And Talking Heads provided plenty for Demme’s cameras to record. David Byrne concocted a novel concept that had the band coming to the stage one at a time—one member per song, including some of the top funk musicians in the business—as the crew built the set around them. All the pieces fall into place at the halfway point, and then after a brief intermission, Talking Heads return in dramatic new costumes and proceed to roar through some of their most complicated songs, in a relentless, propulsive drive to the finish. The energy level is phenomenal, exemplified by a performance of “Life During Wartime” that ends with Byrne literally running laps around the stage.

The new Stop Making Sense Blu-ray essentially replicates previous home-video editions. It adds the bonus songs that first appeared on VHS in the ’80s (and those songs, “Cities” and “Big Business/I Zimbra,” remain ridiculously great), as well as the insightful commentary tracks and vintage promotional material that first appeared on DVD nearly a decade ago. The main new bonus feature on the Blu-ray is an hourlong press conference held after a 1999 screening of the film, in which all the Heads appear together and field a good crop of audience questions. But the main reason to shell out for this new version of an old classic is to see how luminous it looks, and hear how vivid it sounds. The Talking Heads’ exuberance is infectious, but it wouldn’t count for much if they weren’t playing their instruments with such skill and intensity. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (augmented by Steve Scales) keep a boisterous beat, Jerry Harrison and Bernie Worrell play synthesizers that sound gritty, funky, and far from sterile, and David Byrne and Alex Weir trade guitar licks that are surprisingly fiery. Those dudes could play. Grade: A

When U2 entered the studio with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in 1984 to record The Unforgettable Fire, the band had the express intention of working in a more impressionistic, less anthemic style. (The touchstones U2 mentioned to the producers included Patti Smith and Simple Minds.) The album was a hit—thanks in large part to the Top 40 single “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” which was anthemic—but a fair number of rock critics in 1984 argued that U2 had missed the mark with a soft, unfocused record, insisting that songs like “Bad” and “A Sort Of Homecoming” didn’t come to life until the band played them in concert. The new triple-disc The Unforgettable Fire: Deluxe Edition (Island/Interscope) gives a fair hearing to that point of view, as well as to the notion that the album is much better than the critics of the day thought. In addition to the original Unforgettable Fire, the set includes a second disc of B-sides and live takes that run the gamut from the gorgeously abstract to the conventionally rousing. But the third disc—a DVD—makes the case for The Unforgettable Fire as a lovely, near-perfect work of art in and of itself—and as a sketchy blueprint for a much better live show.

The DVD is anchored by a 30-minute documentary shot in Slane Castle and Windmill Lane Studios while U2 recorded the album. The doc captures four likeable guys—maybe a little full of themselves—experimenting happily with resonance as a core sonic virtue, and improvisation as a source of joy. The songs U2 worked up at Slane—or channeled, if you’re amenable to the band’s spiritual bent—aren’t meant to overpower, they’re meant to envelop, and they do so splendidly. And yet while seeing U2’s process helps clarify the intention, it also shows how shabby the work could be before it was finished. Eno and Lanois look on with mounting exasperation as Bono adds new lyrics and elides different syllables from take to take, and The Edge frets over whether his performances have properly “peaked.” They all seem hesitant to lock anything down, and that hesitancy extends to the videos for the album, also included on the DVD. Leaving aside Bono’s awful, awful mullet, he looks damnably uncertain on the videos for the studio versions of The Unforgettable Fire’s songs, as though never fully convinced that he got them right.

No wonder, then, that the band quickly changed gears—especially after its career-defining performance at Live Aid, also included on the DVD—and released the half-live EP Wide Awake In America, supported with live videos for MTV to play. That live material is as electrifying now as it was then, though the assurance of those performances has proven less provocative over the long haul than the tentative steps U2 took in the studio. Watching the band perform take after take of “Pride”—and watching Eno and Lanois patch together all their ad-libs into a cohesive song—is in a way far more riveting than watching U2 belt out the finished product for a packed stadium. It’s like the difference between an exclamation point and ellipses. Grade: A-

Although Best Buy demos tend to feature the ocular porn of Pixar and The Matrix, Blu-ray also excels at capturing the nuances of pre-digital formats, even or especially when they’re less than pristine. The music is still the reason to come to D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, but the way Criterion’s The Complete Monterey Pop Festival BD set captures the welcoming warmth of the film’s 16mm images, viewers could turn off the sound and happily watch the grain for hours. Still, the sound is even more remarkable: It was remixed in 2002, and here, it’s offered in uncompressed stereo and surround for the first time. (The original soundtrack is available as well, but even a quick back-and-forth demonstrates the overwhelming improvement in the newer track.) While it doesn’t have the same legendary status as Woodstock—or the same smothering blanket of boomer nostalgia—the 1967 festival is arguably more musically significant. It’s certainly hard to beat the electric crackle that surges through the air as The Who’s Roger Daltrey introduces the set-closing “My Generation” with “This is where it all… ends.” Apart from the technical upgrade, the set’s two discs (also available separately) duplicate Criterion’s DVD box, including outtake performances from The Grateful Dead, Simon And Garfunkel, and Jefferson Airplane, as well as mini-docs devoted to career-defining sets by Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. Grade: A

The politically charged, near-catastrophic 1970 Isle Of Wight rock festival has already been covered well in Murray Lerner’s documentary Message To Love, which combines angry performances by some of the era’s biggest acts with unsettling footage of young people demanding a privilege and consideration they haven’t earned. But Message To Love, by necessity, only provides a broad overview of the event. For an extended footnote, watch Lerner’s hourlong film Leonard Cohen: Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970 (Columbia/Legacy), which captures the moment, on the final night of the festival, when Cohen took to the stage at 2 a.m. and mesmerized the throng, transforming a contentious happening into something sublime and irreducible to cant. Though supplemented by interviews with Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson (who had their own run-ins with the audience over the course of the weekend) and Bob Johnston (who served as Cohen’s musical director, freeing Cohen to settle into the moment), Live At The Isle Of Wight mainly focuses on Cohen’s calm, almost numb face as he sings songs from his first three albums. It’s a beguiling performance, both musically and in terms of how Cohen works the crowd. He positions himself as on the side of the everything-should-be-free contingent, but he undercuts their sense of entitlement by warning, “You’re not strong enough yet.” He gets the crowd to listen to songs about gamblers, suicides, and martyrs, showing how even people of real heft can struggle with their weaknesses. He tells half a million people to grow the hell up, basically, but does so with such gravity and stillness that no one seems to take it personally. They listen to him. Why wouldn’t they? Grade: A-

Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis—titans in vastly different worlds—continue an unlikely collaboration with Willie Nelson And Wynton Marsalis Play The Music Of Ray Charles (A&E), a DVD documenting their joint appearance at Lincoln Center earlier this year, alongside special guest Norah Jones. Ray Charles picks up exactly where the duo’s Two Men With The Blues left off, with Marsalis using standards as springboards for loose jams and extended solos. Decked out in a black suit and black cowboy hat, Nelson proves, as always, a generous collaborator, happily letting his worn, weathered voice become just one element in a busy sonic stew: He’s content to recede into the background while men with horns and harmonicas show off. Only Willie Nelson could transform a dressed-up evening at the Lincoln Center playing alongside titans of jazz into a happening as laid-back and casual as any back-porch picking session. Grade: B

In 1972, Neil Diamond’s double-live album Hot August Night turned a popular entertainer into an international superstar, by cherry-picking the best material from an erratic career and presenting it to its best advantage. The DVD Hot August Night/NYC (CMV) doesn’t have such an ambitious agenda. It’s a document of Diamond’s four-night engagement at Madison Square Garden in August ’08, when he and his massive touring band (who’ve been backing him for more than 30 years) spent two hours running through his copious catalog of classics, peppered with a few songs from the critically acclaimed Rick Rubin-produced albums 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. It’s surprising how well the new songs stand up to all-timers like “Brooklyn Roads” and “Cracklin’ Rosie.” When Diamond sings the title track of Home Before Dark, he sits stock-still and dewy-eyed, as though completely unaware of the 20,000 people in a darkened arena. And when he sings the 12 Songs standouts “Man Of God” and “Hell Yeah,” Diamond gets the crowd as worked up as they are for “Crunchy Granola Suite” and “I Am… I Said.” It’s also surprising how much energy Diamond generates while barely moving onstage, beyond some slow dance steps and light swaying. The parody versions of Diamond—Will Ferrell’s, most dominantly—hover around everything Diamond does these days, from his anecdotes about growing up in Brooklyn to his exhortations to the audience. But when that audience is still singing along to the horn part of “Sweet Caroline” after what seems like its 10th reprise, it’s hard not to buy into whatever Diamond is selling. Grade: B+

One could certainly quarrel with the title of The Ultimate Bee Gees (Warner/Reprise), the latest attempt to pump up the group’s catalogue sales, especially since only eight of the two-disc set’s 40 songs have been drawn from the band’s sublime pre-disco decade. But the accompanying 18-track DVD redresses the imbalance somewhat, featuring a handful of charming promo clips and (largely lip-synched) TV performances, going all the way back to 1966’s “Spicks And Specks.” The proto-video for “New York Mining Disaster 1941” is particularly striking, overlapping the band’s performance in an abstract op-art space with documentary footage of grimy coal miners toiling away underground. As the songs grow more painful, so do the clips, especially after the collection jumps from 1979 to 1993 and the attempts to inject parallel storylines featuring semi-clad models several decades the Gibbs’ junior feel strained and a tad pathetic. Grade: B

Liberace had already made a name for himself as a consummate showman before he began performing in his own syndicated TV series in 1952. But television made Liberace a household name—and filthy rich, to boot—as audiences tuned in to hear him banter lightly, provide a few educational tidbits about the history of the songs he was about to play, then run his fingers across the keyboard with a flourish. The double-disc Liberace’s Greatest Songs (MPI) contains six hours of performances from Liberace’s TV shows, and while it’s hardly a musical triumph—given that Liberace’s florid style tends to make pop ditties and classical masterpieces sound equally shallow—it’s an evocative document of a bygone era of music and television. Liberace’s shows aired at a time when TV itself was still a relative novelty, and people gathered around their sets in middle America to get a taste of big-city culture. The fact that this “culture” was represented by a closeted homosexual with suspect taste and a perma-smirk only gives Liberace’s Greatest Songs an added dimension. In hindsight, it’s easier to see that Liberace wasn’t introducing TV audiences to the classics—he was introducing them to camp. Grade: B

Fans of This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind should find the DVD Unwigged & Unplugged: An Evening With Christopher Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer (Courgette) fascinating on multiple levels. If nothing else, Guest, McKean, and Shearer demonstrate their musical prowess as they run through laid-back acoustic renditions of their best-known comic compositions. As goofy as songs like “Hell Hole” and “Big Bottom” are, they’re well constructed, and awfully versatile. (Those who need convincing of the latter point should check out the doo-wop coda the three comedians tack onto “Hell Hole.”) But the real question is: Are these guys funny when not in costume? Yes and no. McKean is affable enough (though annoying when he talks about the band-member characters he played in Spinal Tap and The Folksmen as if they were real people), but Guest is notoriously reserved when he isn’t acting, and Shearer keeps interjecting stale quips into the between-song patter. The funniest material in the show comes from the ephemera the boys pull from their past collaborations: clips from old TV appearances, anecdotes about the origins of certain songs, a reading from a network executive’s notes on how to cut This Is Spinal Tap for broadcast, and so on. No one will walk away from Unwigged & Unplugged feeling like they know Guest, McKean, or Shearer any better, but this DVD does establish the breadth of their musical repertoire, and it gives a sense of their knack for keeping a theater full of fans entertained for more than two hours. Grade: B+

It’s hard to believe there was a time when some dude from Holland could show up in the middle of a burgeoning music scene, camera in tow, and get some of the most important musicians in pop history to let him shoot them in action. But that’s just what happened when film student Wolfgang Büld traveled to the UK in 1977 to make a documentary for a school project. Over the next several years, Büld made connections in the punk scene and its various offshoots, and made a series of films about the burgeoning cultural revolution. Three of those films—Punk In London, Reggae In A Babylon, and Punk In England (MVD)—are now available on DVD, and while the sound is muddy, the editing choppy, and the interviews unfocused, there’s something appropriately punk about the rawness of Büld’s approach.

Punk In London is the most anarchic of the trio: The footage doesn’t always match the music, and while Büld records big acts like The Clash and The Jam, he also spends way too much time with some less-dynamic, less-memorable groups. (To compensate, the Punk In London DVD adds all Büld’s unused Clash footage, plus a 10-minute interview with the director.) Reggae In A Babylon, filmed in 1978, runs about 45 minutes, and covers the immigrant population that helped fuse authentic Jamaican music with the some of the more polished elements of British pop and rock. Büld captures the political commitment that drove a lot of British reggae (particularly the music of Steel Pulse), but more importantly, he captures some talented musicians who deserve to be more than a footnote in the history of the UK pop scene. Punk In England (the DVD of which adds Büld’s 30-minute documentary Women In Rock) was shot in 1980, and contains an almost elegiac hour of interviews with and performances by the remaining British punks (including a post-London Calling Clash and a now-wildly successful Jam) alongside rising new-wavers like The Specials, Madness, and The Pretenders. Büld doesn’t really make any effort to place all these different styles into anything more than a rudimentary context, but as with the other films in the series, Punk In England works as a primary source. Here are the bands; here’s their music. Write your own history. Grades: London: B; Babylon: B+; England: B

Though hardcore can be plenty exciting on record, there are visual and communal components to the music that almost demand to be seen live to be fully understood. The Men Of Action (Sudden Death/MVD) collects 26 music videos and live performances by Vancouver punk legend D.O.A., and it’s an ideal introduction to the band, for a couple of reasons. First off, the disc features a commentary track by Joe Keithley (a.k.a. “Joey Shithead”), who delivers what amounts to an hourlong monologue about the history of the band, the politics of the ’80s, and what it was like to get paid in beer for most of D.O.A.’s first decade of existence. Secondly, because The Men Of Action draws from across the band’s entire career (right up to the Bob Rock-produced 2008 album Northern Avenger, which is included as a bonus audio CD), the DVD shows D.O.A.’s versatility, as the band roars back and forth from noisy mayhem to focused, rousing rock.

There’s much less variety on the Harley’s War CD/DVD combo Hardcore All-Stars (MVDaudio). Drawn from a recent New York Harley’s War gig (plus a few others from the punk supergroup’s world tour), Hardcore All-Stars offers more than an hour of former Cro-Mags frontman Harley Flanagan leading an accomplished band of thrashers through one beefy, hyperspeed rant after another. The music and performance are aggressive, but there’s something a little too pat about Flanagan’s style at this point in his career. Since helping marry punk to metal in the mid-’80s, he’s stayed in more or less the same musical vein, and the sight of accomplished middle-aged musicians grinding through a tight set of similar-sounding anthems is more dispiriting than inspiring. Grades: D.O.A.: A; Harley’s War: C

Unlike a lot of other African acts that break through in the States, Mali’s Tuareg desert-dwellers Tinariwen make rawness an essential part of the sound. On this year’s Imidiwan: Companions (World Village), the band continues to capture the glorious clattering-together of many sturdy, scrappy pieces: acoustic guitars scratching at chords, dry-toned electrics laying down tangled leads, low male vocals contrasting with joyous female group-vocal outbursts. The short DVD that comes with the album is hardly as essential as the music itself, but a half-hour documentary (okay, more like a dignified commercial companion) does offer some insight into how those pieces collide. In one early scene, guitarist-vocalist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and a percussionist lay down the slow-burn backbone of “Tenhert,” which will eventually take on a more layered, less solitary feel. And a lot of Tinariwen’s warmth comes from the female vocalists: The most charming scene features two of them recording their parts for “Lulla,” dancing around the mics and smiling at each other between lines. There are great hints here of the band members’ fascinating life stories—their nomadic pasts, and how they still seem to lead a humble existence in the Tuareg community—but not enough time to explore them, so the background and context get a bit muddled. Still, the Imidiwan DVD is worth a spin for the footage of bad-ass mid-desert recording sessions alone. Grade: B-

Broadway has been threatening a Batman musical for a long time, and the Julie Taymor/Bono Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark may eventually make it to New York. A warning to theater folks who want to see singing superheroes: You won’t do better than Mayhem Of The Music Meister! a recent Batman: The Brave And The Bold episode on Cartoon Network. More Phantom Of The Opera than My Fair Lady, the tunes in “Mayhem” are catchy and well sung, especially by Grey DeLisle as Black Canary, who delivers a lovely ballad expressing her desire for the Dark Knight. (“If only he could love me / like he loves fighting villainy.”) The lyrics are mostly clever—“Drives Us Bats” amusingly references the Adam West-era Batusi and Shark Repellant—though they sometimes fall into the “What rhymes with…?” category. (“Your life I’ll now dispatch.”) Neil Patrick Harris steals the show as the titular supervillain; his superb vocal chops make it tough for anyone to sing along. This is the second best episode of B&B so far (“Legends Of The Dark Mite!” with Paul Reubens as Bat-Mite is No. 1) and it’s a lot of fun. Especially compared to a three-hour version that costs $100 a ticket. Grade: A