DVDs have Queen-inspired ballet, live Pretenders and Santana

By Tom Von Malder | Sep 15, 2019
Photo by: Eagle Vision Before "Radio Ga Ga," a white box gets filled with 14 male dancers during "Ballet for Life."
Owls Head —

Queen + Béjart: Ballet for Life (Eagle Vision, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 59 min.). This disc brings together a new documentary about rehearsing and performing the ballet (58 min.), as well a s a full 1997 performance of the ballet (92 min.) and a 1997 documentary about the creation of the ballet (24 min.). The new film documents how Queen’s music served as the inspiration for the ballet, which was created by the late choreographer Maurice Béjart and featured costumes by the late Gianni Versace.

The new documentary is by Lynne Wake and Simon Lupton and was edited by Emmy Award winner Christopher Bird. Béjart took music by both Queen, featuring late vocalist Freddie Mercury, and Mozart to tell, through dance, the story of AIDS and the suffering of its patients. Characters in the ballet represent both Mercury and Béjart’s former principal dancer, Jorge Donn of Argentina, who also died of AIDs complications shortly after Mercury. They died, respectively, in 1991 and 1992.

As Mercury and Queen’s career are followed, it is pointed out that Mercury, who did in fact take some ballet lessons, often performed as a dancer on stage during Queen concerts. There are interviews with several dancers from the original production of the ballet, as well as with Queen guitarist Brian May and Béjart principal dancer Gil Rowan, who now runs rehearsals and choreographs for the Béjart Ballet. There are many rehearsal bits in the documentary, as the ballet is still performed several times a year. Rowan is seen performing in the full ballet film, alongside Gabriel Arenas, who plays Death, who is also musically represented by the Mozart pieces.

The new documentary also includes part of bassist John Deacon’s final performance with Queen, a ballet-closing performance of “The Show Must Go On,” with Elton John doing the singing, during the ballet’s premiere in Paris.

The complete ballet included here was filmed in June 1997 at Theatre Metropole in Lausanne, Switzerland. Continuing the tragedy aspects of the production, Béjart’s long-standing friend Versace was tragically killed in Miami shortly after the filming in Lausanne. Versace’s dip into the world of ballet – he made 13 different styles of costumes -- was to be one of his last efforts.

The production combines Queen’s sweeping emotional melodies, mostly from studio tracks, although some are from live recordings, and the ethereal grace and movement of ballet. It is the first and only time a full-length ballet has been paired to rock music. The theme of the choreography is about the cycle of life and life triumphing over death, which perfectly reflects the mood of the songs. Dancers fuse classical and modern ballet seamlessly to songs including, "It’s a Beautiful Day," "I Was Born to Love You," "Radio Ga Ga" and "The Show Must Go On." During “I Want To be Free,” a video shows the recorded performance of Donn. The ballet film was directed by Béjart and David Mallet, who has directed live concerts with Tina Turner, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, as well as several Queen videos, including “Bicycle Race,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “I Want to Break Free” and Mercury’s solo “The Great Pretender.”

The many overhead views show Béjart’s likeness for Busby Berkeley-styled arrangements. The piece opens with 28 dancers lying on stage, each under a white sheet. During “It’s Magic,” most of the dancers are wearing a suit jacket, tie and shorts. At one point, two dancers are rolled around on hospital cots. A couple of the male solos are very nice. One takes place in a white box and the dancer is quickly joined, one at a time, by 13 others in the small space.

The 1997 documentary includes behind-the-scenes footage of the ballet being put together, as well as interviews from that year. The release can be purchased in a deluxe edition with a 36-page hardback photo book with photos from a performance of the ballet. All royalties payable by Eagle Rock Entertainment to Tonleigh Ltd will be donated to The Mercury Phoenix Trust for fighting AIDS worldwide. Grade: A

Pretenders with Friends (Cleopatra, Blu-Ray + DVD + CD, NR, 65 min.). This special, high-energy concert was performed at the Decades Rock Arena in Atlantic City, NJ on Aug. 11, 2006. Special guests include Shirley Manson of Garbage, Kings of Leon, Incubus and Iggy Pop. The Pretenders quartet includes original singer/songwriter/guitarist Chrissie Hynde and original drummer Martin Chambers. Ex-Katydids guitarist Adam Seymour joined the band in 1993 (he would leave in 2007) and bassist Nick Wilkinson joined in 2005.

The concert opens with “The Wait,” “The Losing” and the excellent “Back on the Chain Gang,” with Hynde playing guitar on the latter. Manson, who is Scottish, is the first guest, singing the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town” and Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains.” The latter comes across better. Two songs later, Kings of Leon sort of take over the stage to perform their “The Bucket,” while there is more Hynde on a joint version of “Up the Neck.” Next it is Incubus joining the Pretenders to perform Incubus’ “Drive” (disappointing) and Hynde’s “Message of Love.” By themselves, the Pretenders do a great version of “Precious.”

The next guest is punk godfather Iggy Pop, who plants a big kiss on Hynde’s cheek. They perform Hynde’s “Fools Must Die” and Pop’s “Candy,” with both terrific. The Pretenders continue the excellence with strong versions of “Mystery Achievement” and “Brass in the Pocket,” before the show ends with everyone on stage to perform “Middle of the Road.”

Bonus features include a slide show and seven backstage interview bits (8:30). Grade: B+

Santana: Live at US Festival (Shout! Studios/Icon Entertainment, Blu-ray or DVD, NR, 67 min.). This show from Sept. 4, 1982 features a Santana lineup that included Scottish singer/rhythm guitarist Alex Ligertwood, who had five different stints with Santana from 1979 to 1994. Interspersed among the 11 musical selections are brief interview bits with Carlos Santana, who discusses his music and approach, acknowledges that he mostly plays African rhythms and melodies, focuses on melody in his playing and says, “You’re always going to need water, hugs and music.”

The music is excellent, whether it is shorter, more rock songs, such as the opener “Searchin’,” which Ligertwood co-wrote, or covers of Ian Thomas’ “Hold On” (then new) and Russ Ballard’s “Nowhere To Run,” the band’s well-known cover of Rod Argent’s “She’s Not There,” or Santana classic versions of “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va” or “Jingo Lo Ba.” Jazz great, keyboardist Herbie Hancock joins the band for “Incident at Neshabur.” The three percussionists – Raul Rekow, Armando Peraza and Orestas Vilat -- are excellent throughout and featured between “Savor” and “Jingo Lo Ba.”

The sole bonus is expanded versions of four of the interview shorts (7:28). Grade: A

Echo in the Canyon (Greenwich, Blu-ray or DVD, NR, 82 min.). This documentary, produced and directed by Andrew Slater, focuses on the “California Sound,” when pop music incorporated folk music and went electric, centered around Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon in 1965-67. The bands covered include The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys and The Mamas and the Papas. The documentary is hosted by Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers, and son of icon Bob Dylan. Jacob often serves as the interviewer, talking to Tom Petty, David Crosby and Jackson Browne, among others.

Petty, in his last filmed interview before his death, compares Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys to Mozart. Wilson himself says how he was impressed by the Beatles’ “Revolver,” which led him to write the “Pet Sounds” album, which in turn influenced the Beatles to make “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Eric Clapton also discusses the back-and-forth influence between American and British music. Also interviewed are Roger McGuinn (Byrds), David Crosby (Byrds, Crosby Stills Nash), Graham Nash (CSN), Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield, CSN), John Sebastian, Michele Phillips (Mamas and Papas) and Ringo Starr (Beatles). Many of the personal anecdotes are new and fun. Crosby talks a lot about why he left The Byrds and Phillips dips into her romantic life with her bandmates.

Mixed in with the interviews and documentary material are rehearsal and portions of live performance from a concert Dylan, Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and others put on, performing songs by classic Laurel Canyon groups, including The Association. This makes the documentary a bit schizophrenic, and some of the new versions just are not that great. The documentary and interview portions are much better. Used as video backing during the concert are scenes from French filmmaker Jacques Demy’s take on Los Angeles, the 1969 film “Model Shop.” Grade: B+

The Beatles: Made on Merseyside (Film Movement DVD, NR, 87 min.). While most of the facts are already known, this is an entertaining documentary about the early days of The Beatles and includes an extensive interview with Pete Best, the band’s original drummer, who was fired after the group made its first single for EMI. While some said at the time, it was poor drumming on the single that led to his sacking, others here say it was because Best’s mother, Mona, was bothering manager Brian Epstein with too many phone calls. Best, of course, went on to have a successful drumming career apart from The Beatles. Best offers plenty of reminiscences from a first-hand point of view.

The documentary, written and directed by Alan Byron, opens by describing Liverpool of the 1950s as bleak, with black buildings, a city that was mostly flattened by German air raids in World War II. While do to rights issues, and probably cost, there is no actual Beatles music in the film, and only brief snippets from their early press conferences, there are lots of interviews with people who knew the Beatles, including their tour manager, Epstein’s secretary and childhood friends, and with those who played with them, including Len Gorry and Colin Hanton from The Quarrymen, the first group John Lennon formed. Their comments zero in on the Hamburg performing days at the Kaiserkeller and Star Club and the early performing days in Liverpool at the Casbah Coffee Club and the Cavern, which initially was a jazz club that forbid rock and roll. Also heard from are Frank Allen and John McNally, both of The Searchers music group.

Mona Best turns up in old footage with her son, Pete, and discusses his dismissal from the group. There also are a couple of bits with Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, who shares her personal perspective. Grade: B

Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am? (MVD Visual, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 88 min.). This documentary tries to capture the spiritual side of the late, great saxophone player, who came to fame as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. The second half of the film centers on Clemons’ journey to China, where he wanted anonymity. It is true that almost no one there knew his name, or even Springsteen’s, but they also had not seen a tall black man before, so he ironically got attention anyway. Clemons, who died shortly after his trip to China, had brought along photographer/friend Nick Mead to film his China experience, and there is somewhat brooding narration by Clemons throughout the film.

Early on, the film touches on Clemons’ childhood and a childhood friend goes on quite a bit about a tree the two used to climb as kids. There are a couple of references to a car accident that prevented Clemons from following a pro football career and instead to take up the saxophone, but this film is not too heavy on biographical details. Instead it focuses on interviews of those who knew of worked with Clemons, including former President Bill Clinton, nephew Jake Clemons, musicians Joe Walsh, Narada Michael Walden (his collaborator on the album he made after returning from China) and Nils Lofgren. Springsteen is conspicuously absent, save for some brief stage introductions of Clemons.

We see brief bits of his work with the E Street Band, Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 1999 (with Walsh) and Clemons’ Temple of Soul Band. Near the end, the film discusses the impact on Clemons when his mother died.

Overall, I found the film a bit too meandering. Grade: B-

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