Tis the season to be musical; tune in to these DVDs during the holiday season—and beyond—as reviewed by Library Journal‘s prolific and tuneful reviewers.
Aaron Copland: Music in the 20’s. b/w. 348 min. David M. Davis, WGBH, dist. by Kultur, www.kultur.com. 2011. DVD ISBN 9780769791418. $69.99. MUSIC
These 12 half-hour TV programs produced in Boston in the mid-1960s offer conversational talks on music by the best-known American composer of his day, coupled with performances by leading musicians in their prime (the Juilliard String Quartet, Paul Jacobs, Donald Gramm, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, often conducted by Copland himself). Copland’s own 20s were in the 1920s, thus, his commentary illuminates the music he heard (many world premieres) and the people he knew. Copland (1900–90) and superb producer-director Davis (who played trumpet and held a degree in music education) valued musical integrity enough to showcase 14 full-length works (from 11 composers), including Paul Hindemith’s hilariously strange 12-minute chamber opera Hin und zurück, starring Beverly Sills, a performance never before released on video. Additionally, there are 28 complete excerpts (from a dozen more composers), entire movements of instrumental works or selected arias and songs from operas or collections. A teacher could structure a complete course around Copland’s lectures, inviting students to challenge his assumptions (Copland says much of the music of the 20s still sounds “fresh” 40 years later—what about 90 years later?), dig further into his presentations (Why does that harpsichord sound so different from the ones we hear at original-instrument baroque concerts?), argue for and against his interpretations and emphases, or find music by composers he mentions in passing.
Verdict The Aaron Copland Fund for Music can be proud of sponsoring the release of this priceless series in technically restored digital format. Anyone with an interest in “classical” music of the 20th century and after will treasure this fully packed production.—Bonnie Jo Dopp, Libn. Emerita, Univ. of Maryland, College Park (LJ 3/1/12)
The Art of Piano: Great Pianists of the 20th Century. 107 min. DVD ISBN 9780769791128.
The Art of Singing: Golden Voices of the Century. 116 min. DVD ISBN 9780769791135.
ea. vol: color & b/w. Donald Sturrock, dist. by Kultur, www.kultur.com. 2011. $29.99. MUSIC/PERFORMING ARTS
A more exact title for each should be “The Art of Opera Singing” and “The Art of Classical Piano.” The singers are those who became the “Golden Voices” of the 20th century: Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Rosa Ponselle, and Feodor Chaliapin among them. They are seen and heard in rare footage, some very early and in remarkably pristine condition, and appear much more impressive than in earlier VHS releases. The interviews are delightful as well as revealing. These are all great entertainers of their day and even long past their prime can dazzle with sheer force of personality. Many are schooled from the era of stand, sing, and gesture, a style long abandoned by the fireworks and dazzling showmanship of a Callas, but the beauty of tone and delivery is undisputed. The clips may be too specialized to serve as a true introduction, but opera fans will be thrilled at the variety. Seeing and hearing Leontyne Price sing Aida alone can thrill the soul. The disc fittingly ends with Callas performing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, a zenith of 20th-century opera.
What allows The Art of Piano to shine is similar to its sister DVD: rare footage of great artists performing the classics of their form. Some may quibble with inclusions or exclusions, but there is plenty here about which to rejoice. Great care has been taken to reproduce the film and sound, which are far superior to earlier releases. Viewers already familiar with the likes of Ignacy Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arthur Rubinstein will equally thrill to discover Josef Hofmann in his only filmed recording, or the lightning technique of György Cziffra playing Liszt. The commentaries are expert and help to establish an authoritative tone.
Verdict Both films are highly recommended for music lovers.—Gerald A. Notaro, Libn. Emeritus, Univ. of South Florida Lib., St. Petersburg (LJ 1/12)
Dawn of the Dead: The Grateful Dead and the Rise of the San Francisco Underground. color & b/w. 138+ min. Eliot Espana, Sexy Intellectual, dist. by MVD Visual, 800-888-0486; www.mvdb2b.com. 2012. DVD UPC 823564529899. $19.95. MUSIC
More than a biography of a band, Dawn of the Dead is the portrait of an era—the mid-1960s—and a moment of significant cultural shifts and exploration. Like the best aspects of that time, the film is full of magical performances, enthusiastic descriptions, some surprising twists and turns, and more than meets the eye. The filmmakers incorporate wonderful archival footage, mainstream period broadcasts, home movies, photos, and contemporary interviews with participants in their effort to provide a cultural, political, social, and musical context. The soundtrack contains in addition to the Grateful Dead music from Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others, and along with members of the Grateful Dead’s inner circle are commentators like Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis and the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau.
Verdict For viewers who have ever wondered about the place that drew so many people in 1967’s Summer of Love. Keep on truckin’.—Bill Baars, Lake Oswego P.L., OR (LJ 7/12)
Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone. color. 108+ min. Lev Anderson & Chris Metzler, dist. by Cinema Guild, www.cinemaguild.com. 2012. DVD ISBN 9780781512937. $99.95; acad. libs. $295. Public performance; home version. Spark: Cinema Guild. $29.95. MUSIC
The band Fishbone occupies a unique place in contemporary music. Started by a group of African American junior high school friends in 1979 in South Central Los Angeles, the band pioneered a ska/reggae/heavy metal/punk fusion that was “straight from space.” Combined with an exuberant stage presence by front man Angelo Moore and anchored by the amazing bass playing of Norwood Fisher, Fishbone produced a unique sound in a segregated genre. This film, narrated by Laurence Fishburne, serves as both history and love letter to the band, with cameos by admirers Gwen Stefani, Ice-T, Flea, George Clinton, and Tim Robbins. Although the band has achieved legendary status among aficionados, the lack of chart success and internal pressures have led to repeated cycles of disintegration and resurrection, with the band’s struggles well documented here. Fishbone still plays—an EP “Crazy Glue” was released in fall 2011—but the tours are limited, and the crowds are small.
Verdict This film provides a compelling relationship narrative and a fascinating glimpse into the “Los Angeles punk rock party.” Recommended for fans of the genre and students of popular music’s byways.—Bill Baars, Lake Oswego P.L., OR (LJ 3/15/12)
George Harrison: Living in the Material World. 2 discs. color. 210+ min. Martin Scorsese, Spitfire Pictures & Sikelia Prods. for Grove Street Pictures, dist. by Universal Music c/o Amazon.com. 2012. DVD/Blu-ray UPC 602527903392. $24.98; 4-disc deluxe ed. with DVD, Blu-ray, CD, 96-page book. $99.98. MUSIC
Music buff and film icon Scorsese follows his critically acclaimed 2005 Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home with this intimate and sympathetic portrait of Harrison (1943–2001), the so-called “quiet Beatle.” The first half of this two-disc set concentrates on Harrison’s youth and his decade as the Beatles’ lead guitarist and sometime-songwriter, with Fab Four mates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr adding insight through enlightening new interviews. The movie’s second, more interesting half focuses on Harrison’s post-Beatles era, tracing his solo career from the immediate success of All Things Must Pass (1970) through the ups and downs of later albums. But Scorsese concentrates more on Harrison’s interest in Indian music and religion and his dabbling in auto racing and film production than on Harrison’s musical accomplishments, capturing the essence of this spiritual and seemingly egoless man but leaving enough gaps to frustrate diehards. Included are archival interviews with Harrison throughout his long and influential career as well as new interviews with friend and romantic rival Eric Clapton and a host of musical colleagues. Bonus extras include live footage.
Verdict One of the better music documentaries in recent years; for anyone interested in this unconventional rock star’s remarkable life.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia (LJ 7/12)
Marley. color. 145+ min. Kevin Macdonald, Tuff Gong Pictures in assoc. with Cowboy Films, dist. by Magnolia Home Entertainment, www.magpictures.com. 2012. DVD UPC 876964004756. $26.98; Blu-ray UPC 876964004763. $29.98. Rated: PG-13. MUSIC
Oscar-winning director Macdonald (Touching the Void; One Day in September) covers every aspect of the brief but remarkably accomplished life of reggae superstar Bob Marley (1945–81) in this intimate and unflinching biopic. By blending performance footage, new interviews with family members and bandmates, and old interviews with the musician himself, Macdonald provides an exhaustive but leisurely paced portrait of a still-revered music giant who rose from the Trenchtown slums of Kingston, Jamaica, to become a wildly successful and influential reggae icon. Candid conversations with Marley’s children and widow help the film explore the little-known side of his life story, including marital and family problems. Marley’s role in popularizing Rastafari music and culture in the United States, the botched assassination attempt that nearly killed him, and his death from melanoma at age 36 are just some of the many fascinating topics covered here. The film is also a visual and musical treat, with a slew of entertaining and well-recorded live performances of Marley classics. Generous extras include extended interviews, commentary track by Marley’s director son Ziggy, and two featurettes.
Verdict Informative and engaging, this exhaustive exploration of Marley the man and the musician is highly recommended for any music fan’s video collection.—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia (LJ 10/15/12)
Rejoice & Shout. color. 115+ min. Don McGlynn, Deep Rivers Films, dist. by Magnolia Pictures, www.magpictures.com. 2011. DVD UPC 876964001458. $26.98. Closed-captioned. Rated: PG. MUSIC
A joyful noise from start to finish, Rejoice & Shout packs in 200 years of American gospel from plantation call and response, spirituals, and early hymns to quartets of four-part harmony, blues, swing, and rap and hip-hop. Covering the legends of the genre and brimful of stunning archival footage and historic recordings, this film will satisfy current fans of gospel and make believers of the uninitiated. Performers include the Swan Silvertones, the Clara Ward Singers, Rev. James Cleveland, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and many, many more. Those interviewed include Ira Tucker from the Dixie Hummingbirds, Mavis Staples, Smokey Robinson, Marie Knight, and Andraé Crouch. Director McGlynn has done a stellar job; it’s hard to imagine any gospel collection being more definitive.
Verdict This film should be in every collection; once seen, it will be watched again and again. Rejoice, indeed.—Bill Baars, Lake Oswego P.L., OR (LJ 3/15/12
The Swell Season. b/w. 88+ min. Nick August-Perna & others, Elkcreek Cinema & Overcoat Records, dist. by Docurama c/o New Video, 800-314-8822; www.newvideo.com. 2012. DVD ISBN 9781422995525. $29.95. MUSIC
This film about the extraordinary collaborative team of Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard bears the same name as the band producing the music. The movie documents their relationship and the talent that brought us Once (2007), the hit film and soundtrack and now also a smash Broadway musical. By the time Hansard and Irglová had won their Oscar (scene included here) for the song “Falling Slowly,” they were no longer struggling unknowns. The Swell Season tells what happened next. Their touring concert footage is close and personal, as intimate and spare as their original Once tale. Their legions of admirers are sincere and devoted, and Hansard and Irglová seem genuinely overwhelmed by it all. Some of their off-stage scenes appear to be a bit too staged and precious, though the black-and-white cinematography is perfect for their story. Better and more revealing are the scenes in which they speak directly to the camera and narrate their moods. Ultimately, their musical performances overshadow their personal story and hold the greater interest. Sometimes, the untold is best left to mystery.
Verdict The music and performances are swell; the story, for hard-core fans only. [With the Broadway production of Once garnering Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical, among others, demand for this disc will likely occur more than once.—Ed.]—Gerald A. Notaro, Libn. Emeritus, Univ. of South Florida Lib., St. Petersburg (LJ 6/1/12)