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Reviewed by Will Harris
nce upon a time, in an interview with legendary music journalist Timothy White, the man once – and occasionally still – known as Declan Patrick MacManus uttered the now-infamous line, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture: it's a really stupid thing to want to do." Mr. MacManus’s position on talking about music, however, would seem to be far less harsh, and this has proven to be a very good thing, indeed, as it has resulted in one of the best television series ever to grace The Sundance Channel.
Of course, the aforementioned Mr. MacManus is far better known in most quarters by his sobriquet, Elvis Costello, but while he’s been around the block a few times as a musician, it’s only been in recent years that he’s begun to step out of his shell and regularly appear in front of the camera in other capacities. Witness his groundbreaking role as Hives the Butler in Alex Cox’s “Straight to Hell.” Top notch, that. Still, turning up as himself in sitcoms like “The Larry Sander Show” and “3rd Rock from the Sun” is a far cry from hosting one’s own show, and given Elvis’s one-off turn as a fill-in for David Letterman, there was no guarantee that he’d be able to pull it off when Sundance handed him his own show.
We shouldn’t have worried: the man’s knowledge of music verges on the encyclopedic, and as the host of “Spectacle,” he’s unquestionably in his element.
The premise of “Spectacle,” to dumb it down to the most basic pop culture terms, is that it’s like “Inside the Actors Studio,” except with music…and, yes, there are moments when Elvis seems as though he might be channeling his inner James Lipton. In those moments, however, you never get the feeling that his comments to his guests are anything less than authentic. Granted, it’s a bit easier to keep from sounding obsequious when those guests include the likes of Tony Bennett, Lou Reed, and Smokey Robinson, but you can tell from the look on Elvis’s face that he’s absolutely enthralled by the conversations he’s having, no matter who he’s chatting with, simply because they’re sharing a mutual love of music. It’s also likely because he’s a fan of every single person who takes the stage during the course of these 13 episodes: there’s little question that those who’ve come to chew the fat are individuals who were selected from Elvis’s own record collection rather than from the latest issue of Billboard, which makes for a pleasant change.
Actually, there are a couple of folks who are probably exceptions to that record-collection rule, but somehow I wouldn’t put it past Elvis to have a bootleg of President Bill Clinton’s appearance on “Arsenio.” If Clinton seems like a bit of a cheat to include within the roster of guests, it really shouldn’t: in addition to being the closest thing to a rock ‘n’ roll President that America’s ever had, he’s been associated with music ever since the first time he was spotted clutching his saxophone. And if filmmaker Julian Schnabel seems at first to be riding on the coattails of Lou Reed’s spot on the show, hang in there: the story that Schnabel shares about Reed’s presence at his dying father’s bedside ends up being one of the most poignant tales of the entire season. There are many such tales within the course of “Spectacle,” with Herbie Hancock speaking of his disbelief when it was suggested that Miles Davis might one day call and invite him to join his band, Smokey Robinson discussing the level of his stammering when first coming face to face with Berry Gordy, and Sir Elton John’s story of the last recording session that he ever did with the late Ray Charles.
Sir Elton, by the way, is one of the executive producers of the series, and although it’s probably not coincidence that he also serves as Elvis’s guest on the first episode (nor does it hurt to kiss the arse of one of your bosses), it proves to be a perfect pairing, offering the template which is followed throughout the season. If some of Elvis’s questions are total softballs, then just blame it on the nature of the beast that is the chat-show host, because he certainly spends the majority of “Spectacle” in unapologetic music-geek mode. Witness, in particular, his discussions with Sir Elton, which involve the two of them waxing nostalgic about Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro, and Leon Russell, then dipping into the David Ackles songbook for a duet on “Down River.”
Yes, that’s right: even in the midst of this highly enjoyable conversation, time is still made for a bit of performing by both the guests and their host. Elvis regularly pays his guests tribute by offering up his take on one of their songs, such as “Every Breath You Take” for The Police and “Going to a Go-Go” for Smokey Robinson, usually teaming up with them later for one of their numbers (the version of “Set the Twilight Reeling” by Elvis and Lou Reed is mindblowing), but occasionally dipping into his own songbook for a collaboration. It’s pretty funny to hear the medley of “Watching the Detectives” and The Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” but then, there’s a lot of funny stuff to be found in that episode, with Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers all enjoying the opportunity to snipe at each other during their respective solo turns chatting with Elvis.
“Spectacle” is likely to prove an educational experience for many viewers, given how it explores the musical spectrum well beyond mere pop and rock, venturing into jazz (Herbie Hancock), country (Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash), folk (James Taylor), and even modern-day show tunes (Rufus Wainwright). And although the discussions will obviously provide bliss for the obsessive music fan, it’s still easily accessible for those who just enjoy hearing a good tune. The Sundance Channel has brought us many wonderful programs since its original inception in 1996, but it’ll have to work long and hard to top the spectacle that is “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”
Special Features: Sadly, there’s no audio commentary from Elvis, not even on the first episode, but we do get a four-pack of bonus performances, three from Elvis himself (“Ballad of a Well Known Gun,” “Beginning to See the Light,” and “No More Tearstained Makeup”), plus one where he teams up with The Police for a version of “Purple Haze.” There are also a handful of backstage interviews with Elvis and some of his guests, including Sir Elton, Sting, Smokey Robinson, and Rufus Wainwright.