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June 19, 2009


Because he died young, Jeff Buckley is perceived by many as a remote, mysterious dude; indeed, in the interviews on the comprehensive documentary/stray-concert-footage collection Grace Around The World (Sony Legacy), Buckley sometimes comes off as more than a little pretentious. Yet in the years surrounding the release of Buckley’s classic debut LP Grace, he toured the world several times over and had countless one-on-one encounters with his fans, all as part of his plan to tire himself out enough to become “unselfconscious” as an artist. The Buckley seen on Grace Around The World is part hustler, willing to put on a flannel shirt for a music video if it’ll help market his music, and part serious artist, trying to figure out which of his myriad influences (punk, folk, soul, Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Edith Piaf, Tim Buckley) he should pursue. The documentary portion of Grace Around The World includes segments on artists inspired by Buckley’s life and work—including painters, choreographers and poets—as well as testimonials from famous fans like glam-metal star Sebastian Bach. The film also spends a good chunk of time on the events surrounding Buckley’s unfinished second album and his death by accidental drowning, though both incidents are poeticized too much, rather than given proper scrutiny. Mainly, though, it’s gripping to watch the small-framed, whispery Buckley step onto stages over and over and turn into a big-voiced dynamo, confident in his uncanny gifts, even if he was still unsure how he should bestow them. Grade: B+

Fans got a serious behind-the-curtain look at Wilco with I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which documented the infighting and general malaise (along with the triumphs) that went into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In spite of its title, Ashes Of American Flags presents a largely positive picture of the Chicago road warriors, largely via full live songs recorded at various notable venues, like the Ryman in Nashville or Tipitina’s in New Orleans. Between seemingly randomly selected songs, filmmakers Brendan Canty and Christoph Green (the former recognizable as the drummer for Fugazi) take quick looks at life on the road. An interview with Tweedy gets deep, as usual, with the singer-guitarist talking about pop music as representational art. Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche get a little more practical, detailing the toll that 20 years on the road will take. John Stirratt, meanwhile, smiles and makes the rest of the band feel young. (“This band could probably absorb another change,” says Tweedy, “as long as it’s not John.”) But mostly, it’s about the live footage, mostly shot multi-camera and with disarming close-ups. It’s strange to see Tweedy that clearly, because he wavers between holding audiences in his palm and looking ready to bolt for the exit. The songs, it probably doesn’t need saying, sound incredible, even though they’re slightly odd selections. From “Via Chicago” to “Heavy Metal Drummer,” it’s clear this band has gotten very, very good at playing these songs, without losing the spark that first launched them. Grade: B+ 

It’s no real mystery why The Hold Steady has become so popular in such a short time. The band is prolific, witty, down-to-Earth and—most importantly—fun. That’s what makes the CD/DVD package A Positive Rage (Vagrant) so disappointing. How hard would it have been to put together a decent Hold Steady concert film, padded out with a few interviews and a CD document of the show? Instead, A Positive Rage offers an hourlong documentary about the Boys And Girls In America tour—the moment when The Hold Steady made a quantum leap in fans and media attention—along with a thin-sounding recording of one of the shows from that tour. The material on both is out of date, but the bigger problem with A Positive Rage is that the DVD is so stingy with the live footage. (And what footage there is looks grainy and sounds fuzzy.) There’s some historical value to documenting a band in the process of breaking out, but directors David Gelb and Clay Jeter don’t really do much digging into the burgeoning Hold Steady phenomenon, beyond inserting some fan testimonials and a ton of interviews with the band. And though Craig Finn, Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay, and the rest are usually decent guys, they all come off a little douchey in these interviews, as they tout themselves (wrongly) as the last upbeat meat-and-potatoes rock musicians on the circuit. Curios like A Positive Rage are often described as “fans only,” but The Hold Steady’s fans are the ones most likely to be disappointed. This is an hourlong infomercial for a product they’ve already bought. Grade: C-

The eclectic Los Angeles rock act Dengue Fever combines surf riffs, jammy excursions, and Cambodian folk music, with the latter given a dose of authenticity by the band’s lead singer, Cambodian immigrant Chhom Nimol. Sleepwalking Through The Mekong (M80) documents Dengue Fever’s 2005 tour of Cambodia, and delves into the band’s efforts to be as true to the music they love as possible. Fans of Dengue Fever will appreciate the copious performance footage, and how genuinely likeable the bandmembers appear to be, but fans of documentaries will likely regret that Sleepwalking Through The Mekong is such an inside job. Director John Pirozzi gets the band to open up about what Cambodia—and Cambodian music—means to them, but he never asks any hard questions about whether replication and authenticity are inherently worthy goals. Judging by the evidence of this documentary, the closer Dengue Fever gets to traditionalism, the more rigid and less interesting the band’s music becomes. Grade: C

Robert Mugge’s 1984 documentary The Gospel According To Al Green (Acorn) was noteworthy in its day because at the time, Green had all but disappeared from the pop landscape, after being scalded by a hot-grits-bearing mistress a decade earlier. In the wake of the incident, Green returned to gospel, became a full-time pastor at a Memphis church, and rarely granted interviews that weren’t all about the Lord. But Mugge was able to get Green talking about his upbringing and his hitmaking days, and he even got Green to perform a few of his old favorites between the spirituals. Since 1984, Green has gone back to R&B, so the sight of him singing his hits isn’t as rare anymore. (If anything, it’s the gospel performances that are exceptional, in every way.) But it’s nice that Mugge made the effort to paint something like a complete picture of a complex man. He also strove to make The Gospel According To Al Green look striking, by filming with deep shadows in what he describes on the DVD as an homage to film noir and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers. Now that’s filmmaking! Grade: A-

Arcade Fire doesn’t have much interest in a straight-ahead concert DVD. The Canadian band’s 70-minute film, Mirror Noir: Neon Bible Archives, begins with some weird voiceover in a French accent, and then the band being individually hypnotized by an unseen hand. Thankfully, it actually sticks to a fairly conventional format after that: Live songs are interspersed (and often blended) with shots of the band recording Neon Bible in a Canadian church. It’s artful, but not pretentiously so—at least not too often. It’s interesting how quickly frontman Win Butler can go from looking overly serious to becoming playful, and it’s also nice to see him recording vocals in a hoodie instead of his usual Amish-lite look. Apparently a lot of Butler’s parts were recorded outdoors, if this footage is to be believed. Also interspersed are voicemail messages from callers to 1-866-NEON-BIBLE, a phone line the band set up (along with some piss-taking informercials) to promote the record. Some of the messages are a little cringeworthy—overeager fans, wackos, etc., which can actually get a little uncomfortable. But that’s what great art is supposed to do, apparently. Grade: B

There was a very good 2007 documentary about Pete Seeger called Pete Seeger: The Power Of Song, but the best way to understand the folksinging icon is to watch Live In Australia 1963 (Reelin’ In The Years/Acorn), a nice-looking, nice-sounding video-to-film transfer of a nearly two-hour black-and-white TV broadcast. Seeger stands onstage in a big concert hall with just a microphone and his guitar and banjo, while an overflow crowd sits on folding chairs all around him. Seeger urges them into sing-alongs of well-known old folk songs, though he lets them off the hook when he gets to the more political material. (“You don’t have to sing along if you disagree.”) He tells funny anecdotes about Woody Guthrie, takes note of recent murders of black children in the American South, and just generally holds court, effortlessly, jumping easily from history to social engagement to spiritual uplift. He even ends with a plea to look at folk music as an evolving, ongoing form, then backs his claim by playing songs by two youngsters: Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. The Live In Australia DVD is supplemented by an hour of vintage interviews and performances, but the main program is the most riveting. Watching this film, it’s easy to see why Seeger’s work has continued to have such an impact on popular culture. He was an entertainer with rare purpose. Grade: A

The John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band Live In Toronto ’69 (Shout! Factory) DVD is another example of how a concert film with lousy music can still be of some value. Actually, the first third of Live In Toronto is terrific, featuring high-energy performances by Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, all taking advantage of a captive audience of anything-goes Canadian hippies to put on shows a little louder and more raucous than the nostalgia circuit would’ve accepted. Then Lennon hits the stage, with Eric Clapton and Yoko Ono by his side, and his own take on ’50s rock classics like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Money” come out so much slower and sloppier that they make Lennon look like a lucky amateur, not one of the most influential artists of his era. Things get worse when Lennon launches into his own “Yer Blues,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Give Peace A Chance,” each “enhanced” by Ono’s off-key warbling on the edge of the stage. (An otherwise inert Clapton looks horrified by what she’s doing.) The set ends with a pair of Ono songs, and while Ono’s music is worthy enough on its own merits, in this context—in front of a festival crowd who’d just been entertained by a slate of old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll—her performance comes off as especially smug and presumptuous. Nevertheless, taken less as a collection of music and more as a document of Lennon at a crossroads in his career, Live In Toronto is undeniably fascinating. Just keep your mute button handy. Grade: B

Though neither Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention In The 1960s  nor Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution (both from Sexy Intellectual) bears the “Under Review” tag, both documentaries follow the same basic format as that music-doc series. Both take whatever legally defensible footage they can swipe of their subjects (from TV appearances, promotional films, and the like) and string them together with thoughtful cultural/historical analysis from some of the ugliest music critics the producers could find. They’re also both way too long, leaving no recording or biographical tidbit unexamined. Still, it’s instructive to watch the two docs back-to-back, and enjoy the contrasts and the organic progression between the artists.  Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention In The 1960s covers Zappa’s early high-school goof-offs with Don Vliet (later to become Captain Beefheart), and gets into his days pumping out ersatz teen-pop for exploitation movies, as well as his public debut as a kind of tongue-in-cheek performance artist. By the end of the decade, even though Zappa remained as conceptual and smart-ass-y as ever, critics had begun to note the musicianship on the Mothers records, and to admire the satirical ideology behind all the potty jokes. Kraftwerk And The Electronic Revolution sort of picks up where the Zappa doc leaves off. In the early days of German underground rock, the rigid structuralism and freeform excursions weren’t too far removed from what Zappa was up to at the time, though as the ’70s progressed, krautrock—and Kraftwerk in particular—become more focused and curtailed. The critics interviewed on The Electronic Revolution are a feisty lot, skewering British technopop acts like Gary Numan and Soft Cell for ripping off Kraftwerk while adding personality, which sort of missed the point of Kraftwerk’s anonymous utilitarianism. The critics also put Kraftwerk into proper context, explaining how the shifting tides of internationalism conspired to forge a uniquely European sound, with no basis in R&B or any other trace of the kind of “corrupting” American influence that Zappa embraced. Both: B+

In theory, Joni Mitchell and The Alberta Ballet’s collaborative dance piece The Fiddle And The Drum (Image) is an extended meditation on “environmental neglect,” but it plays much more like a sensual abstract ballet set to an idiosyncratic Mitchell mix-tape. Under the direction of choreographer Jean Grand-Maître, the Alberta troupe moves fluidly—in skimpy, skin-tight clothing—across a bare stage, while circular cut-outs from Mitchell’s war-themed paintings are projected behind them. Meanwhile, the score leans heavy on non-canonical Mitchell tunes like “Three Great Stimulants,” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and “If I Had A Heart.” The message of the piece is muddled, but when gathered in one place, the latter-day Mitchell material plays much better than its reputation. The Fiddle And The Drum works well as background listening/viewing. Grade: B

In spite of the title, the new Nick Lowe anthology Quiet Please (Yep Roc) ranges from the veteran pub-rocker’s rowdy late-’70s efforts to his more recent, more hushed country-soul. The collection’s supplemental DVD runs the same gamut, including an hourlong concert showcasing the new-style Lowe, as well as a set of ’70s and ’80s music videos that show off Lowe at his exceedingly goofy, yet remarkably consistent, best. The DVD even contains a forgotten gem or two, like the video for Lowe’s rubbery “All Men Are Liars,” a paean to deceit that finds time for a quick potshot at Rick Astley. Grade: A-

In 1992, British indie-rock act The Wedding Present released a single a month in the UK, and later compiled the A- and B-sides as Hit Parade 1 and Hit Parade 2. The band also made a string of videos to accompany the project, and compiled those on a VHS tape—now available on DVD—called Dick York’s Wardrobe (Cherry Red). The video anthology uses a phony announcer between clips to play up the idea that the program is an actual “hit parade”-type show, but the format is plainly ironic, since The Wedding Present’s videos tend toward the murky and super-low-budget. Dick York’s Wardrobe is firmly of its time—the band even sneaks in a Stone Roses parody—but in keeping with The Wedding Present’s intensely personal, low-to-the-ground aesthetic, these videos look wonderfully askew, like early-’90s MTV as seen by people lurking in the shadows of a Happy Mondays clip. Grade: B+