Less than a week after the death of Johnny Cash, an in-concert DVD arrived on my doorstep: Johnny Cash: A Concert Behind Prison Walls (Eagle Vision), a bare-bones disc containing a late '70s TV special from the Tennessee State Prison. Cash is like a hard-time version of Bob Hope, leading a collection of such now-unfashionable celebrities as Roy Clark, Linda Ronstadt, and Foster Brooks. Cash himself is in fine form, but there isn't near enough of him here to justify a $20-ish retail price.
Another, far more rambunctious performance at Tennessee's big house, this one by a rhinestoned David Allan Coe, is documented in Heartworn Highways (Catfish Entertainment): Coe interrupts a tune to tell a long tale about his own early experiences in jail, a story that hits closer to home for the inmates than Foster Brooks' jokes in the Cash video. All of Heartworn is close-to-home, in fact. Townes Van Zandt gives a drunken tour of his backyard, Guy Clark putters around in his guitar-repair workshop, and everybody gets a chance to strum one or two in the living room. Legendary figures of the '70s country revival are shown in concert, in the studio, and in plenty of candid moments, but more pleasing than the performance footage is the homespun way director James Szalapski assembles it all. There is a real sense of place (Austin and Nashville, to be exact) in the film, which is more interested in placing the artists in context than in documenting their soon-to-be greatest hits. It's a must-see for fans of the genre, ranking alongside Les Blank's revered music films.
(Fans of Coe and Cash can see them both in The Last Days of Frank & Jesse James, which, alongside other country-singers-playing-gunfighters flicks like Barbarosa and Outlaw Justice, was recently released by Artisan. Caveat emptor: Few of these films are being reissued for their cinematic virtues.)
With a world of fans out there to exploit, home-video music releases rarely need to be as great as Heartworn Highways to be profitable. Middling fare like Marvin Gaye: Live in Montreux 1980 and Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind (both on Eagle Vision) are for die-hard fans only; Gaye has his moments but is obviously not at his peak, and the Mitchell doc is less engaging than your average E! channel biography.
Other recent releases may be cinematically plain-jane, but get the job done as far as capturing strong performances. Paul Weller Live (Yep Roc) contains more than three dozen tunes from the Jam leader, in two recent concert settings. The Legend Lives On: A Tribute to Bill Monroe (Koch Vision Entertainment) contains hours of material from contemporary bluegrass stars like Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs; straight concert footage is interrupted by unnecessary narration, but chapter stops make it easy to skip to the next song.
Success doesn't have to do that to you. Witness Nick Cave, who, a quarter-century after forming the Birthday Party, is still full of fire and brimstone. God is in the House (Mute) is a smartly shot concert film that captures Cave's creepy charisma: On stage in Lyon, the lanky singer is as much actor as musician, working the crowd like a revival preacher whose faith is sure but skewed. The Bad Seeds support the pulpit with all the assurance of their years together and none of the sluggishness one might expect after two decades. It's almost as gripping a sight as that furious nightclub performance in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire - and it's easily worth the purchase price, which makes the disc's bonus material seem extravagant. The video for "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side," in particular, is startling: Standing alone in a Lady of Shanghai-inspired hall of mirrors, Cave declaims in front of an assemblage of button-pushing imagery. Sparks fly and nations go to war behind him, while Cave sings of an intimate moment between a man and a woman in which the latter cuts the former's intellectual vanity off at the knees. The other two promo videos are almost as great, leading one to wish that MTV still showed music videos now and then. Oh well - every now and then, a music DVD is worth paying to see. •
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