Film and Television Features

DVD Review: Elvis Costello & The Imposters, The Return of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook


Ah, the celebrated genre of music video entertainment, the concert video. Many artists dip their hands in this theoretically viable genre, and yet so few come out of the experience without losing some sense of dignity. Considering the principle, that one could savor the energy and magic of a live performance on a DVD, it's not an unusual premise. Alas, too often the concert films are released by artists whose careers are so irrelevant that it hardly warrants more than one viewing.

Elvis Costello, one of the champions of songwriting versatility and variety, thankfully emerges from The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook with a sense of style. The concert format is based on a spinning wheel, decorated with some of Costello's career-spanning masterpieces. For Costello's diehard fans, there are an abundance of rarities, such as the breathtaking Shipbuilding (not featured on the DVD) and God Give Me Strength (presented, with, as Costello details in the liner notes, his “inner Neil Diamond”). Seeing what could have been performed makes this, as is probably the case with any other show on the tour, a bittersweet affair. After all, how could one's curiosity not be beckoned by “Pump It Up in 6/8” (also not featured)?

Costello introduces the show under his emcee pseudonym Napoleon Dynamite (he's used that name long before the film was released), introducing the vaudeville theme of the tour. Aside from the spinning songbook, which he promotes as thought it were a miracle elixir, there is, of course, a go-go dancing cage. Costello spends a few minutes explaining the spinning wheel itself, only to perform four songs in such rapid fire that one begins to wonder just when the wheel will be spun. But sure enough, after Mystery Dance and Radio Radio, the first lucky member of the audience is pulled up to spin the wheel. His spin lands on Clubland (quite lucky), and it is with this song that the spinning wheel becomes the center of the performance.

The night features an interesting variety of celebrity cameos. Some intentional, like The Bangles coming out to perform Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution). Some unintentional, like Sandrah Oh (Gray's Anatomy) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men creator) spinning the wheel and dancing through Everyday I Write the Book.

With his casual playfulness, Costello seems at home with his L.A. audience. There never seems to be a moment where Costello lays on his tongue-in-cheek humor. It could be that it's due to his preoccupation with the spinning wheel, which is a very time-consuming process.

As well, I have never been much of a fan of his most recent backing band The Imposters, and this concert has only confirmed my distaste. There is hardly a moment when the band meets eye-to-eye with Costello, whereas The Attractions almost always did. I know it's unfair to compare any rhythm section with the bombastic ferocity of The Attractions, but The Imposters do such a poor job of showing anything reminiscent of a pulse that I begin to wonder just what is the inspiration of their name. I suppose that these shortcomings can be overlooked when Costello is singing, but it's during the instrumental breaks and solos, such as those featured in I Want You, that their mediocrity really sets in.

In the end, one has to take a step back from the spinning wheel, The Imposters, go-go dancer Kitty, and other vaudeville festivities to appreciate what this concert film captures: Elvis Costello. The spinning wheel puts him in limbo for the bulk of the show, as he is expected to go seamlessly from Clubland to God Give Me Strength, or from Alison to Earthbound. One of the night's highlights is Costello/Napoleon Dynamite performing two acoustic songs from National Ransom: A Slow Drag with Josephine and Jimmie Standing in the Rain. This is ended by an annoyingly cheeky rendition of Alison, during which Costello is joined onstage by an audience member named none other than Alison.

Of course, the night ends with the greatest Elvis Costello song not written by Elvis Costello, (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding. Joined by the go-go dancer and The Bangles, it's quickly turned from a head-bobbing anthem to a startling revelation: the show is over. Aside from the intermission, there is hardly a time when Costello breaks through the vaudeville gimmick and lets the songs speak for themselves. Bringing an Alison on stage while the audience sings through the verse and chorus is fitting for Wayne Newton, but for Costello, I can't help but expect a bit more than entertainment.