Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 14, 2007)
If we look at the list of acts I probably should like but I don’t, REM would land a prominent place. Oh, I can’t say that I maintain active disdain for them, but I simply never could get into them.
Some of that may stem from my introduction to REM. Back around 1982, my high school friends become big fans of the band, so I was subjected to incessant proclamations of their greatness. This got old quickly and left me with a sour taste.
In addition, the guys in REM tend to come across as very arrogant in terms of their place in music history. If you listen to them speak about themselves, they can act like a) they invented rock and/or b) they perfected it. The manner in which they overrate themselves has also stuck in my craw.
But I suppose neither of these issues should affect the quality of the music itself, so I thought I’d give them another look via REM Live, a new concert presentation. Recorded in Dublin over two shows in February 2005 as they toured behind 2004’s Around the Sun, the DVD’s 22 songs cover the band’s career. From Sun, we find “Boy in the Well”, “Electron Blue”, “The Ascent of Man”, “Leaving New York”, “I Wanted to Be Wrong”, and “Final Straw”. “Bad Day” was a then-new track from 2003’s compilation In Time: The Best of REM 1988-2003, while 2001’s Reveal provides “Imitation of Life” and “Walk Unafraid” comes from 1998’s Up. 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi gives us “So Fast, So Numb” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “I Took Your Name” are off of 1994’s Monster.
When we look at 1992’s Automatic for the People, we discover “Drive”, “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon”, while 1991’s hit Out of Time gives us “Losing My Religion”. “Orange Crush” pops up on 1988’s Green, while “The One I Love” comes from 1987’s Document. 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant offers “Cuyahoga” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” emanates from 1984’s Reckoning. Finally, “The Great Beyond” is from the soundtrack to 1999’s Man on the Moon, and “I’m Gonna DJ” is a previously unreleased tune.
Like I said at the start, I’ve never counted myself as an REM fan. Live won’t change that, but I must admit I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The concert includes a good selection of tunes that come across well in the live setting.
I like the show’s mix of old and new. To my surprise, I thought a lot of the more recent tracks worked as well – if not better than – the “classics”. That’s not a slam on the older tunes, as they’re usually pretty good. I don’t much care for “Everybody Hurts”, as its lyrics are a little too Free to Be You and Me for my liking. Also, “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” loses some of its appeal because it sounds a little too honky-tonk.
Otherwise the older songs fare quite well. “Orange Crush” is a particular fave, and I also rather like “Frequency” and “The One I Love”. Outside of the tracks I mentioned in the prior paragraph, I find little about which to grouse in terms of the old tunes.
And that was to be expected, as those songs long ago earned their status as REM classics. As I alluded, I took it as a bigger surprise that the newer numbers held up so well next to the “hits”. Indeed, as a less-than-knowledgeable REM person, I often found it tough to discern the old from the new. Often when long-established acts play concerts, we can easily tell the difference because the newer stuff marks a decline in quality.
That doesn’t happen here, as the new work blends seamlessly with the older tracks. I do admit I’m not wild about “Bad Day”, but that’s mainly because it sounds too much like a rewrite of “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. It’s still a decent song; it just scores no points for originality. I rather like all the other newish tunes, though, and they help make Live a consistently enjoyable listen.
So how does it work from the visual point of view? Not nearly as well, as director “Blue Leach” makes the concert a nearly unwatchable mess. Imagine a 100-minute music video and that’s what you’ll find here. I can take the stylistic excesses of a four-minute video, but to have to suffer through 25 times that much quick-cutting and strange effects becomes very wearisome.
Shots often last barely a second or two, and other visual decisions exacerbate this distracting choice. I suppose REM need to maintain their edgy “alternative” image with an edgy and quirky concert video. That means that in addition to the rapid edits, we find lots of intentionally clumsy camerawork. There are many unfocused, jittery shots throughout the show as well as a plethora of video effects. Colors take the natural stage hues and manipulate them, and many video effects like streaks, blurs and double images alter the source shots. All of this adds up to a headache – literally, as my noggin began to throb about 20 minutes into this thing.
I’ve seen REM live; in fact, I attended a couple of their fall 2004 “Vote for Change” shows that occurred just a few months prior to these Irish concerts. That means I have an idea what they’re like on stage. While I don’t think they put on a great live show, I know that they can hold the audience’s attention without gimmicks or gewgaws. Michael Stipe has enough charisma to make him a quality frontman, and REM manages to put on a reasonably effective live presentation.
That fact makes the visual choices for the DVD more bothersome. If REM put on a dull show and needed some spice, I might better understand the stylistic decisions. I still wouldn’t agree with them, as they’d create distractions in any scenario, but at least I’d comprehend the desire to add some pizzazz to a pep-free act.
But REM don’t need it, and the DVD’s annoying visuals do nothing more than undermine the concert presentation. Occasionally we almost get a good look at the show. For instance, “The Ascent of Man” manages to remain reasonably sedate – at least compared to most of its brethren. However, the colors are atrocious, as the stage’s natural green lighting takes on a rather sickly tone. These Nausea Greens dominate much of the show, and I don’t know why. Yes, I can tell that some of the colors stem from the original performance, but I’m sure that they didn’t look this overwhelming and unpleasant in person.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not now – and probably never will be – an REM fan. I like their music just fine but that’s about as far as my affection will ever go. Despite this lack of great interest, I think that REM Live presents a lot of good material – in terms of audio, at least. The musical performances seem quite good, but the director’s visual choices leave a lot to be desired. Those selections make this a problematic DVD and not one I’d care to watch again.