DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Classic Albums: So

DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Classic Albums: So
Eagle Vision
All Access Rating: A-

Peter Gabriel - Classic Albums: So 2012
Usually, Peter Gabriel’s artistic instincts are above reproach, but his original choice for the female half of the hopeful duet “Don’t Give Up” that appeared on his commercial breakthrough LP So was an odd one. 

For this song about the devastating emotional effects of job loss in a troubled economy, Gabriel thought “country and western” queen Dolly Parton, so cheery and brassy, could be a perfect fit for the role – and make no mistake, whoever was going to be picked to sing opposite of Gabriel was going to be acting, as So producer Daniel Lanois explains in this edition of the highly acclaimed “Classic Albums” documentary series from Eagle Vision.

It’s not that Parton was incapable of toning down her act to express the gritty and desperate compassion Gabriel – inspired by Depression-era black-and-white photos from the lens of Dorothy Lang – needed from her to make it work. After all, as Gabriel says here, he originally imagined the piece as a country song. Because Parton grew up impoverished, she could certainly relate to the subject matter, and she’d performed songs that dealt with the anxiety of economic distress with the requisite empathy and emotional resolve to get through it. Still, Parton’s earthiness and boundless good cheer, at least in retrospect, seem particularly ill-suited for the affecting, air-brushed “Don’t Give Up.” Even veteran music journalist David Fricke, who’s as open-minded as anybody when it comes to musical experimentation, remarks on camera that he “couldn’t imagine anybody else” doing the song but Gabriel’s other choice, Kate Bush.

Bush made perfect sense, her feathery, angelic vocals offering soothing comfort and clinging hope to a broken man facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Lanois, as he relates so eloquently in “Classic Albums: So,” believes Bush’s acting was flawless, and some would say So was pretty close to perfect, as well. An awakening of sorts for Gabriel, So found Gabriel opening himself up to possibilities, tinkering with fecund African rhythms and toying with the classic swinging R&B and soul sounds he loves so much to make music that was more infectious and joyful. He had emerged from the dark, tangled psychological jungles and the obscure, arty ghetto of previous works ready to be artistically “revealing and naked,” according to Lanois. Or, to put it another way, Gabriel just let himself be human on a record that was guileless and openhearted, a piece of art that left him exposed and opened up floodgates of emotions, and yet was still quite experimental. And the filmmakers here conduct a proper examination of its body and its soul.

Unlike a lot of the editions in the long-running “Classic Albums” series, this one wisely doesn’t spend much time on the back story, except to detail the renting of that bucolic paradise Ashcombe House – the manor home where many of Gabriel’s solo LPs were recorded – and discuss Gabriel’s reluctance to give his records titles, as well as reveal how Lanois convinced him to give up his longstanding insistence that his recordings be free of cymbals. Instead, this film focuses on the sometimes thorny, but intensely productive, partnership between Gabriel and Lanois, which, as the film indicates, was tested during the year it took to make So, their sometimes contentious chemistry setting off sparks and spurring creative epiphanies. 

An insider’s perspective on the making of colorful and charming video for“Sledgehammer” is provided, along with engaging, yet detailed, discussions about how that track and others like “Red Rain,” “Big Time” and “In Your Eyes”developed and evolved, with particular attention paid to the one-take drumming of Manu Katche on “Red Rain” and that funky Tony Levin bass line that drives “Sledgehammer.” One of the more interesting segments, however, finds Laurie Anderson spilling the beans about how the innovative and arty “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds),” an austere and almost futuristic collaboration with Gabriel that was light years ahead of its time, was so quickly thrown together, at least by Gabriel’s standards, who, as the documentary reveals, is infamous for taking his own sweet time in the studio and asking for a multitude of takes. 

Rich with entertaining anecdotes, the narrative – constructed with a wide-ranging collection of incisive and intelligent interviews – flows smoothly and logically, though not in what could be considered a linear fashion, from a generous overview of the record into a microscopic study of all its most intricate parts. “Classic Albums: So” also dissects Gabriel’s creative process with an invigorating intellectual curiosity, as evidenced by the sheer number of interviews the filmmakers undertook. All the while they also seem intent on letting viewers in on a little secret: Peter Gabriel has a sense of humor. Although it too often gets bogged down in the minutia of the recording process and glosses over some key aspects of So, the film is exactingly researched and forms a wonderfully edited backdrop of vintage video and photographic stills of Gabriel and company at work or at play – the images serving what is a fascinating story. And the bonus features offer more extensive looks at that “Sledgehammer” video that was so ahead of its time and other album tracks, so that viewers get a more complete picture of how the LP came together in the 35 extra minutes that didn't appear in the broadcast version of “Classic Albums: So.” Lanois calls Ashcombe House a “construction site,” where Gabriel and company did painstaking work on So, the most successful album of his career. He might have added that it was also where the magic happened, because there was some of that in the air as well.

-            Peter Lindblad

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