28 October, 2009

LIVE AT THE CAVERN CLUB – Paul McCartney (2001)

Paul’s first made-for-DVD release is a good’un. It’s the complete show from his 1999 gig at the replica of the Cavern Club in Liverpool. And for someone who is generally used to playing venues that hold tens of thousands, he still knows how excel in a small room. The setlist is taken entirely from the Run Devil Run sessions with the exception of I Saw Her Standing There, which was only added to placate fans who might feel ripped off if no Beatles tunes were played. This is McCartney in pure rock and roll mode.

The band is a classic rock fan’s wet dream, comprising of David Gilmour, Ian Paice, Mick Green and Pete Wingfield, plus Chris Hall who plays accordion on a zydeco-influenced version of Chuck Berry's Brown Eyed Handsome Man.

Although the show only lasts for just over an hour, that is made up for by the inclusion of two 20-minute interviews, one reflecting on the show and the other promoting Run Devil Run, and two video clips. The promo for Brown Eyed Handsome Man is excellent.

Highlight: No Other Baby
Feature: * * * *
Extras: * * * * *
Audio: Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields.

THE PETA CONCERT FOR PARTY ANIMALS – Paul McCartney and Friends (2002)

Note “and friends” in the title. Paul himself appears for less than half the running time of this disc. That’s fine, just as long as you know that before you buy it. The main point of the night seems to be for B-list celebs to give each other plaques for making TV ads. It does make you wonder if there might be a better way to fight cruelty to animals. Fair enough if this helps to spread the word, but you have to wonder what’s going on when the inaugural Linda McCartney Memorial Humanitarian Award goes to Pamela Anderson. The awards are punctuated by some deeply unfunny comedy before the second half of the show which is the music. The B-52s open the set, Chrissie Hynde joins them for I'll Stand By You and Paul brings it home with fives songs from Run Devil Run.

Despite Paul being the host for the evening, it’s not really his show. At the right price though, it's worth having, especially for the only live performance of Run Devil Run.

Special features are a collection of short films exposing cruelty to animals. Be warned that if you have any decency at all, you WILL turn away in horror and disgust.

Highlight: Fixing the “discrepancy” in Brown Eyed Handsome Man
Feature: * * ½
Extras: * * * * (but be careful)
Audio: Dolby Stereo

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

25 October, 2009

The Dangers of Evangelical Atheism

Christopher Hitchens was on Q and A a couple of weeks ago doing what is usually expected of him on such programs, which is to speak long and loud about why he knows better than everyone else, interrupting at the slightest opportunity and generally being an intellectual bully. Usually one of the first things you hear about the conservative writer and columnist is his atheism.

I have a problem with people like Hitchens. My problem is not that he is an atheist. In general, I have no issue with atheists. Some of the most Christian people I know of are atheists, and some of the most evil people I can think of would profess to be Christians. My problem with Hitchens is that he is an evangelical fundamentalist atheist.

The other problem I have with people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is one of intellectual rigour. The arguments they present are the kind of arguments that they would dismiss out of hand if they were applied to any other subject.

The first is when they talk about the evils of religion. If someone wants to talk about the atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion, then they will get no argument from me – but that has absolutely nothing to do with the existence of God. That’s like citing crooked cops as evidence that there is no law. It’s a complete non-sequitur.

The other, is their claim that there is no sound evidence of God. Of course, millions of believers will state that there is plenty of evidence of God, but I’m not going to go down that path in this piece. Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, their premise that there is no evidence of God. This does not mean there is no God. The apparent absence of evidence in support of one theory does not automatically mean that the opposite is true. That is fundamentally unscientific thinking and it disturbs me that people with intellects as sharp as Hitchens and Dawkins can’t see that.

The non-existence of God is just as untestable and unprovable as the existence of God. Therefore, whether you believe in God or not, it still comes down to an article of faith.

The popping sound you can hear is a thousand atheists’ heads exploding.
Faith in the negative is still faith.

And this is the point that separates the nice atheists from the dangerous radicals. I can get on perfectly well with atheists who accept their faith for what it is. The ones I have issues with are the ones who say that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Therein lies the great irony of atheism. My biggest disagreement with Hitchens, Dawkins and their supporters is their assertion that their particular faith is morally and intellectually superior to all others. That’s exactly the kind of behaviour they decry in other religions, and rightly so up to a point, but it’s okay for them because they’re atheists and that makes them better.

I would not have called atheism a religion a few years ago but that has changed with the launch last year of the “atheist bus,” and several other similar campaigns.
Everybody wants to get in on the act. Salvation atheist style.

There was a time when atheists were simply religious refuseniks and fair enough if that’s how you want to live your life. But now here they are, openly touting for converts, promising happiness, begging donations so they can do more good in the world (both through charity and expanding their own influence) plus an ego trip in the form of advertising Richard Dawkins’ website. And don’t be fooled by the “probably” qualifier. The website of the atheist bus explains that it was only added for legal reasons.

How is that not a religion? How is that not embracing everything atheists used to say was wrong with organised religion? And how can people as rational and scientific and Dawkins and Hitchens not see that? If they were not such intellectual snobs, I might think they just missed the point, but seeing as they are such great thinkers, I can only assume that they are being deliberately blind to their own contradictions.... which is just another thing they criticise believers for.

22 October, 2009

GET BACK – Paul McCartney (1990/2005)

Get Back is the filmed record of Paul's '89/'90 comeback tour and began a tradition of annoying concert films that continues through to today. This one was directed by Richard Lester, who made his name directing the Beatles' first two films and his eccentric style comes out in the concert film. We all know that these films are cut together from dozens of different shows, but unlike most others, Lester makes no attempt to disguise the fact. While it's a refreshingly honest approach, it can be irritating if not downright creepy to see Paul and band change clothes in the middle of a song. And while it's perfectly legitimate to illustrate The Long and Winding Road with news footage of the Beatles and the space race juxtaposed with vision of the Vietnam war, showing it all at full screen for the entire song is not what we paid to see.

The concert itself is magnificent with heaps of Beatles songs that until then had never been performed live. But as with all the others, the film does not do justice to the show. Being shot on film makes it look more dated than it really is, and the cutaways to the audience become so ubiquitous that you sometimes feel like you're watching an audience film occasionally interrupted by a concert. The fact that the same mistake of overusing audience shots has been made by three very different directors over 15 years can only suggest that the order came from higher up the chain. Paul, we know you're famous, that's why we want to see YOU!

If Paul is ever going to release a decent concert film, he needs to look for two qualities in a director:
  1. Find someone who is actually adept at making concert films. Being good at making cheeky Britcoms and black comedies about the war, or 4-minute MTV clips doesn't necessarily qualify you to capture a concert.
  2. Get someone who is not a Paul McCartney fan. When Paul hired Nigel Godrich on George Martin's recommendation, to produce Chaos & Creation, Godrich admitted that he had never bought a McCartney album. The result was healthy creative tension and the best album Macca has made in 25 years. The same should apply to DVDs. Get out of the mutual admiration society.

Get Back, like just about everything that came after it, merely teases us with a taste of what might have been.

Highlight: The first live version of Hey Jude, closely followed by the Abbey Road medley
Feature: * * ½
Extras: None
Audio: Dolby Stereo

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

21 October, 2009

PAUL IS LIVE – Paul McCartney (1993/2003)

This record of the 1993 New World Tour suffers the same problem as the album that accompanied. By including only songs not performed on the previous tour (plus Let It Be, Yesterday and Hey Jude, but you knew that didn't you?), the concert comes across as disjointed. That's somewhat understandable in the VHS release, but if they were going to remaster and remix the show for DVD, why not reinstate the songs omitted on the original version?
The other letdown with Paul Is Live is the direction. Rapid cuts and pointless visual effects only serve to distract. It's a style that might be appropriate for a 4-minute MTV clip, but over 90 minutes it's just plain annoying. The pre-show film is included at the end of the concert – naturally.

All the performances are top notch but on the whole, this DVD is a wasted opportunity.

Highlight: The Melbourne skyline (even when it's meant to be Kansas City)
Feature: * *
Extras: None
Audio: Dolby 5.1

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

16 October, 2009

THE SPACE WITHIN US – Paul McCartney (2006)

The third installment of the trilogy of live DVDs produced and directed by Mark Haefeli delivers what the others had only promised. It's still as much a tour film as a concert film, with songs interspersed with behind the scenes footage, fan profiles, and comments from famous fans about the great man. This year's selections include Cameron Crowe, Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton. And while it's done with a fraction more subtlety than previous attempts, it still leaves you wondering what the point is. For a start, they're preaching to the converted. And after three volumes, it seems as though these live DVDs are not so much concert films as a fan manifesto - a campaign presentation for why Paul is the greatest, punctuated with musical interludes. It's all so completely unnecessary. Guys, if you want to show that Paul is the greatest, just let the music and performance speak for themselves. The cavalcade of celebrity endorsements and fan profiles just makes it look like you're overcompensating for something.

As for the music, this disc really is the best yet. Paul has mixed the set list up so that it keeps plenty of crowd-pleasers but avoids the safe predictability of the 2002 set. The most welcome surprises are rarely performed songs including Too Many People, I'll Get You, I'll Follow the Sun, I Will, and Please Please Me plus a revival of Till There Was You. Not only that, but the selections from the new album are proudly played alongside the classics as they deserve to be, rather than all shoved in the middle as if they're some kind of intermission. It all takes place on a truly inspired piece of staging. He's going to have a hard time topping that one. Or perhaps not. I've thought that before.

Mercifully, there is no interruption to the music this time around. All the songs are allowed to play out before we cut to a family getting ready to go see the show. (Why?) Actually, that's not strictly true. Hey Jude and Let It Be are heard only as background music to some interviews, but that's forgivable since the songs are not cut into and both of them are available on at least five other DVDs.

For once, the interviews with Paul himself offer some insight too. He speaks several times on the subject of everyone coming together and of common sense prevailing. It's as almost if he's attempting to atone for pandering to post-Sept 11 jingoism on the 2002 tour and DVD. If so, all is forgiven.

Extras-wise, we have three soundcheck performances – Whole Lotta Shakin', Friends to Go and How Kind of You – the preshow film, a refreshingly candid short on the making of the show and a collage of the tour on the road. Here's a suggestion on the latter: if Paul wants to maintain his cred as an environmentalist, he really ought to get over the old 70s cliché of having chopper shots of a dozen trucks blocking the highway while he climbs into his private jet on the other side of the split screen. At least tell us they're on bio-diesel.

But aside from such clichés, (still WAY too many shots of the audience), this is still the best live DVD Macca has produced. You'll wonder what anyone ever saw in Back in the US.

Highlight: Too Many People, and an impromptu tribute to another famous left-hander
Feature: * * * *
Extras: * * * ½

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields.

15 October, 2009

Hidden in plain sight?

I don't know - maybe I've just been reading too much about Glenn Beck's blathering about hidden socialist messages in public art works and spellings of words and cracks in the footpath and such. Be that as it may, I had a look at the relaunched RNC website this evening.
Is it just me, or does this banner bear more than a passing similarity to the flag of communist China?

The People's Republicans?


Like Back in the US, Red Square is mislabelled. The cover says it's a concert film, but it's really a tour film. As a tour film though, it's way ahead of Back in the US. The fans have interesting things to say unlike the collages of embarrassing throwbacks to Beatlemania that we saw in the previous deev. On the downside, we are treated to some rather dodgy revisionist history. Apparently the Beatles brought down communism. That was nice of them. I hope Reagan and Gorbachev sent thank-you notes.

This is where Paul leaves himself wide open to accusations of rewriting history with himself as the star. If he feels such an affinity with the people of Russia, as he claims to, it makes you wonder what took him so long to get there. After all, Billy Joel played in Moscow in 1987 and Elton John did it pre-glasnost in 1979.

The concert footage is played out of sequence to match the narrative of the documentary which is, at times, extremely moving – especially the visit to a St. Petersburg orphanage. The concert itself, when we see it, shows the band at the peak of their powers but (AARGH!) the director interrupts the songs again! If the performance of Fool on the Hill was so special, let us hear it instead of talking over it to tell us how special it was! Or at least give us a Music Only option.

The big thrill of this DVD comes from the extra performance in St. Petersburg. At last an uninterrupted concert! It's only 45 minutes but it's the best McCartney live show to be released on DVD so far.
Along with all the regulars, Red Square includes the first live performances of Two of Us, Flaming Pie and I've Got a Feeling, plus the first live video of Calico Skies and She's Leaving Home.

Highlight: St. Petersburg
Feature: * * * ½
Extras: * * * *
Audio: Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

14 October, 2009

BACK IN THE U.S. - Paul McCartney (2002)

Back in January, I promised DVD and music reviews and never really got around to posting any. It's about time I remedied that. I'll try to remember to post some every mid-week. Sorry, no alliterative title, it will just be around the middle of the week when my thoughts about things to write are less organised due to work. Most will be Beatles related for the time being.

To begin, since a new Paul McCartney live DVD is imminent, let's talk about some of his previous ones. I have posted quite a few of these reviews elsewhere as well.

BACK IN THE U.S. - Paul McCartney

There ought to be two cardinal rules of concert films:
1) Never show backstage footage before the show. It destroys the magic.
2) Never interrupt a song with an interview. Does anybody think that Coming Up sounds better with people talking over it? No.

Back In The U.S. breaks both these rules. The main letdown of this “rock and road” movie is that it can't make up its mind which it wants to be. Just when you're getting into either the concert or the behind the scenes bits, it switches to the other again.

Producers would do well to remember that a concert film is not a souvenir for those who were there, it is a consolation for those who weren't. So enough with all the shots of the audience. We know they're having the time of their lives – that's because they're looking at the stage and not each other. And do we really need Sylvester Stallone or John Cusak to tell us how good Paul is? Or so much embarrassing footage of fans' drawings and singing? We don't have to be reminded of how famous the man is.

Back In The U.S. would have worked far better if it had the concert and the tour doco as separate programs. The special features are a hotch-potch of live tracks, rehearsals and interviews that didn't make it to the main feature, plus a DVD-Rom link to exclusive web content.

Highlight: The acoustic set
Feature: * * *
Extras: * * ½
Audio: Dolby 5.1, Dolby Stereo, DTS

Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

10 October, 2009

Nobel Prize for encouragement?

Look, I like Obama but this is getting embarrassing. To honour Obama's efforts on international diplomacy and nuclear disarmament so soon really suggests that they were a bit desperate for a winner. His efforts are admirable and a refreshing change but I find it slightly depressing to hear them described as extraordinary. Perhaps they are, but that only shows how far the bar has dropped. He hasn't done anything that I wouldn't expect from any responsible leader and nothing that has really achieved anything - yet.

I felt a similar way when Jimmy Carter won. He probably did deserve it for the reason they gave it to him, but using that year's award to correct an historical oversight only shows what a lack of candidates they had that year. If the Nobel Peace Prize is to have any credibility, then they shouldn't simply not award it if they can't find anyone who has done anything recent to deserve it.

I have high hopes that Obama will eventually deserve it, but it is not an encouragement award.

Okay, that's nothing you haven't read already, so here is my prediction:
By tonight, US time, the right wing will be claiming the committee gave it to him this year because they expect him to be a single-term president.
Remember where you heard it first.

08 October, 2009

Obligatory Hey Hey post

Now does everyone remember why it hasn’t been on for ten years?

The short lived return of Hey Hey It’s Saturday took only two weeks to remind everyone why it was put out to pasture in the first place. The moment came during the spoof talent-show segment, Red Faces, when a group of doctors did a parody of the Jackson Five, in black face. Oh but wait, there’s more: the front man came out.... in white makeup! I bet you didn’t see that coming! Apparently, nobody thought this would be in the slightest bad taste until guest judge Harry Connick Jr, visibly offended by the act, pointed it out to them.

During a break in the live show, Connick sought an on-air apology for the act, which he got, with host Daryl Somers admitting that it wasn’t until then that he realised how the act might have been construed as offensive, or at best, insensitive.
And therein lies the problem with Hey Hey both during its waning years in the 90s and in the reunion shows – their idea of variety is stuck somewhere in the 1970s. In the previous week’s Red Faces segment, there was a performer with a very clever song which he performed very well, but the act that got all the attention was a kid who took his shirt of and smeared vegemite all over himself. Who says family entertainment is dead?

Marieke Hardy wrote a brilliant piece in The Age last week on the subject of Sam Newman – another embarrassment to Channel 9 – that for all his sexism, racism and general boorishness, his greatest offence is that he’s not funny! My standing rule has always been that it’s okay to be crude as long as you’re clever. This just wasn’t funny.

Several points have been offered as mitigating circumstances:
  • Most of the people involved in the act are of Indian descent or multicultural backgrounds
Um.... so? Are Indian people not capable of racism? And how were we supposed to guess their ethnicity when they had their faces painted?
  • They were re-enacting a skit they did on the show 20 years ago.
See above. Hey Hey may not have changed in twenty years but fortunately the rest of the world has.
  • There was no racist or offensive intent.
I completely believe this. The problem is not one of racism but one of complete tone deafness that the act made it to air before anyone stopped to think that in 2009, it might not be taken in the innocent spirit in which it was intended. Dismissing the act as “just a bit of fun,” only works if it actually was.

Even putting aside the black-face/white-face thing for a moment, they were taking the piss (please don’t try and tell me it was a tribute) out of someone who died three months ago and his grieving family. Did no-one think that might have been in bad taste? I know I had none-too-flattering things to say about Michael Jackson at the time, but I didn’t try to dress it up as entertainment. I tried to dress it up as analysis.

Harry Connick has gotten flack for overreacting. What part of “judge” do people not understand? He was there to judge the act and judge it he did. If he doesn’t have the right to react as an American to an act that recalls a still raw aspect of American history, then perhaps we should remember that next time we get upset at American wags sending up Aussies – like the time South Park put the boot into Steve Irwin just weeks after his death. We can’t have it both ways.

Daryl Somers regularly laments to lack of variety on television these days but the truth is, it’s bad entertainment like this that killed it. Yes, there was a time when no-one would have batted an eyelid at such a skit. That time has passed.

I have four complete episodes of that seminal variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show on DVD, complete with commercials. It’s a fascinating time capsule. Watching it in the 21st century makes one marvel at what anyone saw in it. It was just bad comedy, smaltzy singing and circus acts. The only saving grace of these particular episodes is some energetic performances by some young hopefuls from England who called themselves the Beatles. That’s why people remember the Ed Sullivan show – not Soupy Sales. Likewise, Hey Hey was great entertainment in its day, but there’s a reason the show was cancelled.

The aforementioned Marieke Hardy has a far wittier review of the Hey Hey reunion, written before this week’s controversy, HERE.

06 October, 2009

Turnbull: Back me or sack me

I have been critical of Malcolm Turnbull in the past but I must give credit where due. The recent attacks on him by anonymous members of his own party are a load of hogwash.

While the Liberal party opposes Rudd’s planned emissions trading scheme, there is a split in the party between those who oppose an ETS outright, and those who oppose Rudd’s version of an ETS. It amounts to a split between global warming deniers and those who accept the reality but are torn on what to do about it.

Turnbull’s own position is to back an ETS but not Rudd’s plan. Evidently, a significant number of his backbenchers disagree with this position but not enough to say anything attributable. So instead, they have been leaking suggestions that he is politically inept. Such charges are plausible after the Oz-Car affair blew up in their faces, but they miss the point that Turnbull is doing exactly what they put him there to do and leading the party. If they don’t like the way he is leading them, they should do as Turnbull suggests and remove him.

It’s a fine time for the Parliamentary Liberal party to start taking a stand on policy. They always fell in line behind John Howard, often against their better judgement. Everyone knew Howard was past his use-by date in their last term, but still no-one would challenge him. Howard himself put the responsibility back on the party saying he would lead them as long as they wanted him to, knowing that they would never say no to him. Then in mid 2007, Howard told Alexander Downer to put the feelers out and see if the party thought it was time for him to go. The answer came back, “Since you ask, yes it’s time to go.” Howard said, “No, it isn’t,” and the party just quietly waited to lose the 2007 election. Even when it had been made clear at Howard’s own instigation that the majority thought he should step aside, no-one – least of all Peter Costello, who had spent the last ten years expecting to inherit the prime ministership – challenged him.

For the most part, this is the same party that now grumbles to itself about Turnbull’s leadership but does nothing about it. They know that, for all his faults, Turnbull is a strong leader, and who else have they got – Joe Hockey? A few have acknowledged the reality of the situation. The “eccentric” (according to Alexander Downer) Wilson Tuckey said that it would be better to lose a leader than to gain an ETS. One might not agree with that position but at least Tuckey realises he can’t have it both ways. What the “anonymous smartarses” trying to undermine Turnbull have to realise that leadership is not a case of “I am their leader, I must follow them,” and that what they see in Turnbull as political naivety, is actually a bit of vision and courage. It says a lot about them that they can’t tell the difference. Turnbull is right to assert his leadership and challenge his colleagues to remove him if they don’t like it. He issued that challenge last Thursday. No-one has yet challenged him.

Well, I spoke too soon. It was reported today that some in the Liberal party have been sounding out Joe Hockey to replace Malcolm Turnbull as leader. I'm sure he's the candidate of choice for those who want the leader to follow the party.
Can it really be a coincidence that this latest leak came on the same day that Peter Costello announced his early resignation from Parliament? He was regarded as the leader in waiting since as far back 1994, but always waited for it to be given to him. Then when it was, he declined. Many had suggested he was biding his time waiting to launch a challenge but I believe that Costello quietly accepted that he isn't a leader long before his colleagues and commentators did.

I've been wrong before, but I just don't see Hockey as a leader. I see him more like Alexander Downer - a capable, if occasionally embarrassing, front-bencher but lacking the vision required of a party leader. I could be wrong, and we may see his vision if he becomes leader, but I kind of doubt it.