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The Classic Albums series is in need of a boost.
on October 25, 2012
This is a documentary that could have been twice the length that it was because of the fact that the subject matter seems so interesting and so vital to a lot of music fans. I think that any production company or individual who is intending to put together a music documentary needs to first view the recent George Harrison film "Living in the Material World" as an example of what can be done with the format. I believe that if a person, a place, or a record album are interesting enough to have its story told on film then it should be told for all its worth. Don't cut corners, don't omit, and don't edit out whole blocks of subject matter because of time or budget "restraints". Don't sell the art, or the audience, short.
In the case of the Classic Albums take on Peter Gabriel's "So" you have yet another production from Eagle Rock/Isis Productions that leaves the viewer wanting more. There are some glaring omissions in terms of the cast of characters. Most notably a handful of musicians whose performances are a part of "So", but for whatever reason do not lend their voices to this production. They mention drummer Stewart Copeland, even going so far as isolating his part on the mixing console, but he doesn't show up in the film to talk about it. Why? Mr. Copeland is generally quite a character on camera, and "a name" as far as the Marketing department is concerned. I can't think of any other tunes where Stewart Copeland simply played his distinctive "hi hat" style, and nothing more. What was HIS take on that request? The comments and sections with the drummers Manu Katché and Jerry Marotta are pretty brief (especially Marotta), but at least they're shown on camera. So you are left wondering where is the other (more) famous drummer, Mr. Copeland, who appears to love to write books, make films, and tell stories about his experiences? Makes no sense. Next, Kate Bush. I understand that there might be a mystique and a privacy level under which Kate Bush goes about her life and her work, and if so I can certainly respect that. It seems though, that since this is not a film about Kate Bush but a film where the focus is on the tales related to this particular Classic Album, that Kate Bush would share her experience, too. Her performance on "Don't Give Up" is one of the tenderest moments on the whole album, in my opinion. It was an inspired pairing of her voice with Peter Gabriel's voice. She was in the video for the song when it was released, but she's nowhere to be found in this production. No, I can understand Dolly Parton not wanting to appear in this film (those who have seen this film will get the reference), but why no thoughts and no words from Kate Bush? To me it seems like there are parallels with some of the technology (the Fairlight, for example), and the approaches with some of the production techniques that could have been discussed but were not. I have to wonder who is conducting the interview sessions when the artists and producers are sitting at their gear? Related to that, Laurie Anderson is an interesting person, and one who again would have been able to provide insight into song writing and production approach. She has been innovative with her productions and has a great mind, but her screen time is woefully short. There is mention of the video that she and Mr. Gabriel made together for "This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)" but where are the insights regarding the song itself? In fact, there are some songs on the "So" album that aren't discussed at all, by anyone. The songs "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)" (wonderfully "odd" and one of my favorites from the album, which even appeared in a Miami Vice episode back in the day...), and "That Voice Again" are not covered in the film. Eagle Rock/Isis have done this before, too. The Classic Albums production of Rush's "Moving Pictures/2112" left out any discussion of so many of the great songs that appeared on those albums. Finally, where on earth are L. Shankar and guitarist David Rhodes? Mr. Rhodes is probably the most obvious omission. In the Classic Album production of Queen's "A Night at the Opera", both Brian May and Roger Taylor sort of gristle on the subject of their former band mate, the retired John Deacon. But at least they mention the reason as to why Mr. Deacon is not on camera discussing that Classic Album -- he's retired "from the business" and "doesn't want any part of it anymore". So, is that the case with Mr. Rhodes? Well, no. He's not retired from the business. In fact, he just finished a tour with Peter Gabriel as a band member in SUPPORT of the "So" record. He's been an integral part of the Peter Gabriel albums for a long time now. Is it that he doesn't like to appear on camera and be interviewed? Maybe, but he has appeared in most, if not all, of the Peter Gabriel concert films AND documentaries going back a number of years. Again, Mr. Rhodes being a musician, this would have been the opportunity to share in some of his unique (minimalistic, painterly) approaches to Peter Gabriel's music. His absence from this film is a hard one to figure out.
Now, David Fricke is a known journalist and authority on music, and obviously the producers of the Classic Albums series feel strongly about his insights because they keep calling him back. However, with regard to "So" wouldn't it perhaps add more to the story to have photographer Armando Gallo give his thoughts and perspective? It could be that Mr. Fricke has written articles on Peter Gabriel over the years, but Mr. Gallo has created and published several cool books on Genesis, in addition to a book on Peter Gabriel's career up through "So". Mr. Gallo being an artist and photographer has had some inside access over the years, but he too is nowhere to be found in this film. It looked as though some of Mr. Gallo's photography was included in the production of this Classic Albums release, but again there was no discussion on the Gallo images from Ashcombe house.
I also noticed that there didn't seem to be any of the people from the record label telling their tales. Where are the Geffen executives that worked with Peter Gabriel during the release of "So"? We've heard from label and marketing people before in this series, but not this time. There was some talk by other non-label people (studio assistants and also bassist Tony Levin) regarding the fact that the "So" album was THE breakthrough to bigger audiences. However, no one from "behind the scenes" who would've been responsible for helping make that breakthrough happen appears on camera to share in how it happened. It wasn't just the "Sledgehammer" video that made it happen, nor was it the fact that Peter Gabriel simply made a great album.
All in all, this was a good documentary, but not a great one. One of the saving graces of this production is that Daniel Lanois does get some screen time, and his insights and his live playing of the mixing console is a joy to see and hear.
"So" is a great album, and I just think that if you're going to take on a project with a great subject as its focus then you need to rise to the occasion and make a great documentary film that adds to the legacy. So far, Eagle Rock/Isis Productions hasn't done that with a Classic Album production. I want to think that they're getting better at it. At least we have Blu Ray releases now. I love the series, which is why I took the time to write this. The series was a great idea from the beginning and there really is nothing out there like it, but Eagle Rock/Isis needs to step it up and make it even better. They can do that by going more in depth and devoting more time and effort to the subject(s), to filling in the gaps in terms of the missing characters, and by conducting "better" interviews with the people who they do manage to get on camera. Here's to hoping that someone is listening.