Screens Armchair cinephile 

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Sweet dreams and
Last Days

Bob Dylan has been stalking me lately. After having a long conversation over dinner the other night with a young friend who had never appreciated the songwriter until seeing Martin Scorsese’s new No Direction Home (Paramount) on PBS, I sat down the next night at a restaurant where people at the table beside me were having the same conversation. All around, it seems, people are re-evaluating or meeting for the first time the premiere songwriter of his generation. Happily, the DVD is already available for those of us who missed the broadcast.

Few music documentaries are helmed by directors as gifted as Martin Scorsese, of course, but that doesn’t make them worthless. Often their biggest selling point is the simple ability to capture the experience of watching a live performance. That’s the case with, say, Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock (Experience Hendrix), which compiles all the surviving color footage of that legendary show, along with recently discovered black-and-white film, or Sweet Dreams Still (MPI), an anthology of Patsy Cline’s filmed performances that includes the last TV appearance she made before her death. Speaking of TV, it didn’t take Shout Entertainment long to follow up their first Dick Cavett Show release up with the new Ray Charles Collection, a two-disc set with 14 live performances.

Rize (Lions Gate) does a fine job of documenting a scene krumping even if not all of its filmmaker’s loftier ambitions are quite realized. Krumping is an unhinged style of dance a painful-looking, jerk-and-thrash explosion that took Los Angeles’ poor neighborhoods by storm that was created, believe it or not, by a clown hired out for children’s parties. Director David LaChapelle, whose main gig is as a fashion photographer, occasionally stages photo shoots for his subjects that are a little distracting from the themes he’s presenting, but the film is still worthwhile.

Stylization is less problematic (it’s the whole point, in fact), in the newest offerings from The Directors Label (Palm Pictures). As with the series’ first three releases, these four nicely assembled sets each focus on a single filmmaker who has made a mark on music videos: Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Stéphane Sednaoui, Anton Corbijn, and Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) are the subjects this time, and each installment offers at least a few compelling arguments that the MTV era, whatever its negative effects, has been a good one for stylistic experimentation.

Those who think that music videos should be less about a director’s artistry than the music, of course, can still find plenty of DVD collections that lean that way. Rhino, for instance, offers New Order Item, a biographical documentary combined with a collection of the band’s videos, while The Right Spectacle gives the same treatment to Elvis Costello and adds an hour-plus archive of fantastic TV appearances.

Two new rereleases celebrate feature films that have added immensely to the popular-music landscape. The Wizard of Oz (Warner) made its mark by invention: The songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg have entered the canon, even if the film’s main achievement was as a leap forward in terms of the fantasies that could be brought to life on screen. Warner has two new editions out, including a three-disc version in which all the expected documentaries are paired with cute little reproductions of the film’s original marketing material.

The Blues Brothers (Universal), on the other hand, was musically important not for what it created but for what it dug up: For a whole generation of Americans, it was an introduction to the phenomenal Cab Calloway, a mini-primer on sweet 60s soul, and a reminder that Aretha Franklin and James Brown could still kick some ass. It was also hilarious, which is why so many people I know list it among their most-often-rewatched favorites.

Know what else is hilarious? Neil Diamond. In his 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (Anchor Bay), he puts his own awkward spin on the child-of-immigrants-hits-the-big-time genre, offering the camp of Diamond in honky-tonk gear, Lawrence Olivier as an elderly cantor, and the gung-ho anthem “America.”

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Bringing down the mood is Last Days (HBO), Gus Van Sant’s fictionalized look at Kurt Cobain’s death. Returning to the approach of his heartbreaking Elephant, Van Sant is intent on empathy and trance-like observation but couldn’t be less inclined to pretend that he knows what caused the musician to kill himself. If there’s something to learn, the filmmaker seems to think, it will emerge from the form and attitude of the film rather than the script.

Form is also a big concern for Tony Gatlif, whose films Vengo and Latcho Drom embody gypsy culture rather than observe it. Gatlif’s films are disappointingly rare stateside, but New Yorker Video has just released The Crazy Stranger, which returns to this singing, dancing, passionate world. It’s not a musical, really, but as Bob Dylan could tell you, melodies that simply blow by in the wind can be more potent than the ones you visit a concert hall to hear.

By John DeFore


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