The Sound of Music?
November 23, 2008
So I’ve been on a little vacation from creativity lately, which for me means I’ve only just finished two books and started another but am keeping an otherwise low profile, creatively. So, yeah.
It also means I have more time than usual to watch DVDs, and I’ve been on a kick of critically-reviewing a lot of concert performance DVDs I got at the bookstore where I work. They are:
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tell Me What Rockers to Swallow; Nine Inch Nails, And All That Could Have Been; Tori Amos (I know), Welcome to Sunny Florida; The Gossip, Live; and the Pet Shop Boys, Somewhere.
I couldn’t get through any of them except two, both of which I watched twice. Guess which! The answer may suprise you.
I’ll start with the worst and work my way up. I was a big Tori Amos fan for a minute way back when (Boys for Pele is still a brilliant album, I would argue) but oh god of god is this thing bloated and self-indulgent and showcases her in the worst way possible instead of highlighting her charisma as a performer. Some things to note: the run time is 179 minutes, the cameras are inasive and all over the place in jumpy post-MTV style, and Tori dressing and wearing makeup for a faraway crowd but being seen closeup on camera is not, let’s say, a winning combination. I only ended up watching two song performances, both of which were marred by the ADD camerawork and the presence of a live band that laid a thick veneer of Adult Alternative over everything. Sigh.
I picked up the Pet Shop Boys DVD because I am a mild fan and I mistakenly thought it was a film of their semi-legendary world tour in collaboration with Derek Jarman. Nope. Instead it’s a staid 90 minutes of the handsome but stoic Neil Tennant warbling to backing tracks while wearing what looks like pajamas while Chris Lowe, in the back, stands at a keyboard.
There is staging here, but it’s so incomprehensible that, coupled with the awkward back-of-house videography, it’s acively hard to watch. There is a single backup singer involved, and two rear-screen projections of boring parties, and a drag queen, and the whole set looks like a staircase in a minimalist hotel, and you may think that would be interesting, but it was not. It’s a Sin was still great, though.
Then there’s the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which had a very prom-night shoestring-budget feel and which lived or died according to how engaging Karen O was, and she ran hot and cold enough to make the whole enterprise feel listless. This, plus I could not sufficiently turn the volume up enough to sufficiently rock. And the cameras were limited to just three: one shooting crosswise down the wide stage from the wings, and two in the back of the house (one for wide shots, one for closeups). After a while it began to feel repetitive, and I’m a big fan of the YYYs.
Speaking of stage charisma: nobody has it quite like Beth Ditto. It’s hard not to watch her when she’s performing, and that quality alone makes the Gossip DVD pretty great. This is sort of a cop-out, but she just has “it”, whatever it is. She’s actively engaging and she’s always in command. She carries the film on her shoulders and the cameras play to her; for this reason, everything works.
But the best for last is, suprisingly, the NIN DVD. What doesn’t help is Trent Reznor’s advantage of having a production of at lest 10x to 20x that of the Gossip, but that plus the editing make all the difference when you’re sitting at home watching rather than there gettign shoved around by excitable music fans.
Reznor picked superdesigner David Carson to work on the stage setting and artist Bill Viola to produce the video for the middle section, so that’s also an unfair advantage: being able to work with the best. I’m not a very big fan of Bill Viola, but the thump and clatter of the music is a perfect setting for his otherwise stuffy meditations. And David Carson’s fucking David Carson.
Plus the editing is amazing. There are cameras everywhere, but they’re all (allegedly) home mini DV cameras, so what gets lost in picture quality gets made up for in dynamics. The cameras actually in the crowd are a great addition, as are the bird’s eye views because of the size of the arena. And the video segment, played on the equivalent of three enormous LED screens, is really stunning and used both to soothing and pummelling effect. (There’s a great part in the feedbacky end of “Head Like a Hole” at which the screens and all the other lights turn white and pulse rapidly on and off; it’s seizure inducing and it fits the performance perfectly.)
So I guess today’s lesson is probably this: use a lot of cameras when you shoot your live show, and hire a great editor. Also, having tens of thousands to spill on a stage lighting rig is also beneficial. Otherwise you’re going to have to rely on your charm.
Here, a bonus YYY video not meant for the easily-offended. It won’t embed so you’ll have to jump over to Youtube.