Christmas is always a nightmare for music fans, or specifically, the friends and family members of music fans. There is no right answer, buying albums has always been entirely unrewarding. If it’s something they genuinely want, nine times out of ten they’ll have it already, and even if you do your research and know that your friend loves Metallica, you’ll only end up giving him Lulu and ruining Christmas. As if the matter needed compounding Spotify, YouTube and a million illegal downloading sites have officially made music a wholly irrelevant and inappropriate gift.
Concerts tickets are usually a good bet. Who doesn’t get excited about seeing a great gig for free, right? Well the problem is, like albums, they tend to disappear around December and unless you had the foresight to buy months in advance you’ll be left with comparatively little to choose between as bands save their big tour announcements for January.
This is where the Blu Ray DVD comes in, they’re perfect for Christmas, they’ll only ever be watched once, you can guarantee that the recipient doesn’t already have them (because the pricing is frankly ridiculous), and there is a communal aspect (chances are there will be at least one other person willing to watch a Stones or even a Lady Gaga concert).
Unfortunately the record labels latched onto this fact long ago and have absolutely flooded the market. So for every Nirvana at Reading ’92 there’s a retread of a retread, a lazy documentary clipped together from other better documentaries, and the 34th Rolling Stones live DVD. In short, what was once easy has become infuriatingly difficult, especially for rock fans.
Lovers of pop have it easy this year; Adele lost her voice and cancelled a whole host of tour dates leaving hundreds of thousands of people dying to see her concert from the Royal Albert Hall, while Gaga & Beyonce DVDs are sure to have more than enough big hits, costume changes and pyrotechnics to keep the family glued to the screen; but what about Slash in Stoke, Deep Purple with an orchestra, or the latest in a conveyor belt of Nirvana DVDs? Are we guaranteed anything resembling value for money?
So as you prepare to buy those last minute gifts and before you excitedly head out into the January sales, take at look at our guide to the four biggest DVD releases this December.
Buyer beware, this is the most alluring but deceptive money magnet out there. After all who doesn’t like Slash? While Slash may be well liked, and this DVD does offer a satisfying mix of solo material and Guns’n’Roses tracks it also one of the most flaccid and uninspired releases around.
What is the purpose of a live DVD? To capture a defining moment in an artist’s career, to document the brilliance of one particularly sublime set, or translate the energy of the crowd, and the emotion in the air, to the viewer at home either, making him feel like he was there that night or he damn well should have been? There is no right answer, but Made In Stoke doesn’t even attempt to do any of the above.
The sound mix is dire, the recording feels like it was originally intended for an LP release, as the crowd are all but inaudible and the entire concert feels synthetic. Still even if the crowd were audible I doubt they would have made a difference, as the Stoke crowd, while clearly enjoying the show, lack energy, passion or a distinct sense of character. This DVD could have been filmed anywhere, in front of anyone, it’s utterly characterless from the audience to the paint by numbers camera work. Don’t expect any Stop Making Sense style innovations; there are none to be found.
Lastly the concept of Slash returning to his hometown is never really explored, and while it feels like an intriguing premise, Slash gives the game away half way through the concert when he shrugs and says “We’re filming this show tonight. I’ve never had a DVD before”. Effectively summing up the thought process: oh a DVD would be nice, we should have one.
Still it is great to see Slash doing what he does best, and he really does cut loose on occasion without meandering into the kind self indulgent soloing that sunk Slash’s Snakepit. Equally, the overly platitudinous Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge fame does an excellent job on vocals pulling out a more than serviceable Axl Rose impression, and even if the DVD underwhelms “Civil War” and “Mr. Brownstone” certainly do not.
Originally made for and broadcast on the BBC, Queen Days Of Our Lives is the best kind of music documentary. It brings together the major players, most notably Brian May and Roger Taylor, and lets them just talk through their entire experience of being in Queen, in their own time and in their own way, as they mix in a series of fantastic concert clips, vintage photos and historic interviews.
The first DVD captures Queen at their on record peak between 1973-1977 giving genuine insight into the how the records were made, the band’s approach to writing, and their internal chemistry. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s great to see band members openly disagreeing. Similar to what the BBC did with Fleetwood Mac, they interview everyone in isolation, and while Brian May is talking up the value of Top of the Pops as a cultural institution, Roger Taylor, the natural rocker, is telling us how it was one of the worst experiences of his life and he had no interest in staged concerts.
Similarly, while the band are allowed to put their spin on events, they constantly face up to the big issues; the band’s quirky outsider status, what punk did to them, failure to break America, how and why they created sing along classics and moved away from complex prog.
Unfortunately, there are both positives and negatives to the TV format. The program moves along at brisk pace, no one is allowed to indulge in long-winded nostalgia or go off on tiresome tangents, but equally key albums including Queen II and A Night At The Opera are reduced down to explanations of single tracks (“Seven Seas Of Rhye”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”). While this works superbly in terms of pacing, May and Taylor are so cogent and clear in their speech (not a common trait among rock stars it must be said) that an opportunity has clearly been missed to have them delve deeper and explain more.
Still, the end product is so watchable that these complaints soon slip from the mind. Especially when Freddie’s first manager recounts the story of obliviously asking Freddie if he would be comfortable hiring a gay manager, or the brilliant decision to focus on the media hatred of Queen. They actually interview the NME writer who famously called Freddie Mercury “a prat” and contrast his words with footage of Freddie angrily reacting on 70s TV. The band are happy to talk about it now of course and laugh, but you can’t help but wonder if Freddie were alive to relive such a pivotal moment, could he have forgive and forget?
The second DVD, which focuses on Freddie’s death and Queen’s height as a live outfit, is both dramatic and frustrating. Issues of gigs in Argentina and South Africa are perhaps a little too one sided, but the triumphs at Live Aid, the global concert footage and the way the DVD handle’s Freddie’s death are both sublime and deeply moving. In short, the BBC can once again hold their heads high at the sight of another deftly produced rock doc.
Everything that Slash’s Made In Stoke got wrong, Rush’s Live In Cleveland gets right. Firstly the concert is filmed perfectly, the grand scope and scale of a sold out arena is captured effortlessly. The crowd is loud and passionate without getting in the way of band’s performance. The camera work is superbly edited; every last detail of Rush’s playing is documented while the director mixes in a healthy dose of unique crowd shots. The angles are exciting, and you can really feel the warmth of the crowd; the Cleveland audience clearly love Rush for all their eccentricities, and the band’s nerdy zaniness is reflect by an audience unafraid to have a good time, even if they look more than a little silly in the process.
The playing is sensational, the jaw dropping bass lines, the rip snorting guitar solos, and Neil Peart’s bewilderingly ferocious attack proves spellbinding. The setlist is deep and rewarding with all the hits in place (including Moving Pictures played in full). The first half of the concert might not be as stacked with Rush classics as the latter portion, but it holds up well, and works better on TV than it did in the actual arena. Live In Cleveland is that rare artefact, a DVD that is rewarding to both those who saw Rush in person on The Time Machine tour and got the immediate thrill but not the detail, and to those who missed out first time around and who will now be absolutely kicking themselves.
Directed by Cameron Crowe, Pearl Jam 20 charts Pearl Jam’s entire career to date from the gritty days in Seattle all the way to superstardom. The film prides itself on not pulling any punches as it deals with Andrew Wood and Kurt Cobain’s deaths, the Ticketmaster row, the tragedy at Rosklide festival and the band being booed in America during the Bush years, but while these topics are interesting in their own way, they’re never quite as satisfying as you’d hope. Surprisingly then, for a band who’ve been defined by tragedy and dispute, it’s actually the moments of stability that shine through and leave a lasting impression.
The early footage is phenomenal; the interviews with Chris Connell and the dirty early 90s feel of the production help to communicate what life was really like in Seattle in the late 80s. Rather than being bleak and moribund (this is grunge after all), the film conveys the warmth of the scene, explaining how the band was interlinked, and how Grunge created a community distinct from those in New York and LA.
Unlike the brilliant Queen documentary however, this film could have used a more diligent editor, as at times the PJ20 leans towards hero worship (especially in the second half) and some tired VH1 behind the music style tropes come into effect. However, the unique footage, the brilliant performances scattered throughout, and the sheer weight and scale of events make for an entertaining and informative film, it’s a shame the production team weren’t a tad more objective throughout.
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