REVIEW: Elvis Costello The Right Spectacle

Posted by Al Barger on October 13, 2005

Elvis Costello does indeed make The Right Spectacle in this comprehensive video history. Right up front, let's establish that this is a must-own DVD for even fairly casual Elvis fans. Indeed this would be a good starting place to turn someone on Elvis Costello. It'd make a great stocking stuffer for a music hungry teenager.

The main program contains 27 music videos, all his videos through the Brutal Youth album. Looking at them now, and chronologically like this provides a useful view of his whole career.

The first couple of videos are particularly cheap, just the band miming in a white room. There's a lot to be gained from watching Elvis' body language in these bare clips.

Notably, there's a move that he makes where he's walking on his ankle, especially at the end of "Pump It Up" which has monkeyed with me for years. It's like he's a wounded animal that has just extracted his mangled foot from a bear trap.

They get better and at least slightly bigger budgeted as we progress. They start involving locales, and a few costumes and extras, such as the various foreigners working for "Oliver's Army."

"New Lace Sleeves" stands out nicely. As Elvis notes in the accompanying commentary (which can conveniently be accessed as subtitles rather than audio), the Police video for "Every Breath You Take" a year or two later looked notably like this. With due respect to Sting's classic, I think this is an even better song- though this was something written as a teenager.

The real centerpiece, of course, is the classic MTV hit "Everyday I Write the Book." Elvis has always downplayed his biggest American hit single as "a bad Smokey Robinson song." In fact, it's a very GOOD Smokey Robinson song.

The video makes it just doubly irresistable, though, with the beautiful royal parody. The images of Prince Charles at the typewriter (with his boxing gloves on) giving his beloved a determined gaze as he ponders the next chapter of his book- those are priceless, as are the alternately wistful and disgusted looks of Diana.

His other biggest US hit single was "Veronica," co-written with Paul McCartney. The prologue of this involves Elvis directly explaining his recollections of his grandmother in the nursing home with Alzheimer's. I'm no scholar of the Billboard charts, but I bet this is the only Top 40 hit ever on this topic, and those opening recollections really add a lot to the song.

I give special props for the video of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." For starters, I consider this the definitive recording of the song. The video is nothing fancy, just a peformance, but it's cut up flashy enough in the editing to look like a real video.

Getting even better effect from almost no budget is the bearded Elvis singing alone in the empty house of an old girlfriend who has committed suicide in "So Like Candy." The swine rooting amongst the pearls in the final shots are quite striking.

My personal favorite new find on this set, he has a particularly elaborate video for "This Town." This has been a personal underground favorite, promoting one of my favorite Elvis lyrical sentiments, "You're nobody till everybody in this town thinks you're a bastard."

Here that sentiment is presented as a sell-your-soul-to-the-devil game show hosted by Elvis in horns as Beelzebub himself. It's a role he was born to play.

The clips end on a bit of a weak note, though, with "Sulky Girl" and "13 Steps Lead Down." This Brutal Youth album just wasn't his best, and these were not the best songs from that album.

The other main complaint is that in those pre-MTV days, there were no video clips from My Aim Is True.

However, we're only half done with the program. Besides the 27 as it were studio videos, the DVD includes 68 minutes worth of vintage European television and festival appearances.

Partly this begins to make up for the lack of My Aim Is True video with a verse of him singing a solo version of "Alison" on his first television appearance in 1977. This one verse is all there is extent, though. Better compensation, though, from the same show we get "No Dancing" which besides just seeing him, the performance sounds particularly fresh and rewarding to ears which have heard that studio version probably literally a thousand times.

The progression of these live performances underscores a realization that has slowly dawned on me over time: Elvis has become a far stronger performer over time. His performances in 1978 and 1979 are typically a little overly rushed, and overall somewhat crude. They do, however, have particularly strong performances of "Lipstick Vogue" and "Watching the Detectives" at a big 1979 festival in the Netherlands.

There's a really good sound stage live performance with just him and Nieve on keyboards doing "Shot With His Own Gun" in 1981. The simple arrangement and presentation very effectively underscore what a great song that is.

The last performances in this collection date to 1983, and you can see a huge difference from those early performances. The whole band is surer and more confident. Elvis's vocal performances, particularly for "Shipbuilding" and "Clowntime Is Over" are just fuller, better controlled performances than he was capable of five years earlier. Based on actually seeing him live in more recent years, he's even far better live now than he was in 1983.

He finishes with a Swedish tv show from 1983 with a couple of particularly interesting items. "Big Sister's Clothes" was a personal fave of mine that was just not properly served by the gimmicky production on Trust. This straightforward live performance showcases the song better. I'd take just an audio file of this performance over the common studio version.

Lastly, we get a solo performance of "Peace in Our Time." This is, of course, a basic pinko peace sentiment- but one from a top-drawer pop songwriter. This is not particularly his very best song, but it's still far better than the average in such things. Plus, it's very earnest and hot off the presses. It makes a good final color to end the whole collection.

He has never been up there with, say, Madonna as a video maker. He's had neither the budgets nor the inclination for the bazillion dollar mini-movies like the material girl or Michael Jackson have done. But he's working with some of the greatest songs of a generation, and that makes more difference than some fancy costumes. The body language and posture, his physical appearance and even hairstyle and general fashion sense over time add significantly to getting the big Elvis picture.


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