Comebacks: Bob Dylan, Wallace and Gromit
By Tim Grierson
Oct 10, 2005

After enjoying my takes on No Direction Home and the Wallace & Gromit film, please note that I actually got off my duff and went to a few concerts. Been too long.

No Direction Home (Paramount Home Video)

Martin Scorsese's film about Bob Dylan crams in a ton of interviews from Dylan's peers and never-before-seen footage, and it presents the man's history from 1960-1966 as comprehensively as has ever been done. But I suspect that the die-hard Dylan fans (those who call themselves Dylanologists with a straight face) will want more, and they deserve it.

As someone who considers Scorsese's best picture to be The Last Waltz, I was hoping for similar musical treatment here — not just the capturing of facts, but the expression of an era, of a sense of authorial vision upon a body of work. I'm betting that Dylan's involvement was hinged upon the fact that the director would do exactly the opposite — just string together the stories without trying to monkey around with the mythology.

Still, Scorsese is far from slavishly referential, although I wonder why d-r-u-g-s are never once mentioned as a source of some of that amazing mid-'60s wordplay. If I was 13 years old and my cool uncle turned me onto Dylan with this, forget it — I'd be a convert for life. Anyone who's already in love with the guy, however, is going to want to go deeper into the legend than this documentary (or Dylan's own memoir) will possibly be able to satisfy. Forty-five years into his professional career, Bob Dylan remains an almost total mystery. Perhaps that will end up being his most lasting contribution to popular entertainment.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Dreamworks)

Their three shorts that preceded this feature-length excursion aren't perfect, but they feel that way — all of a piece, droll, special little keepsakes, a secret treasure for those who discover it. That's asking too much for 85 minutes, and while Nick Park and his team do their best, time is not on their side.

Terrific in fits and starts, with that patented faux-sinister tone intact, the film is funny enough that I wouldn't want to discourage any of the fans. But they should know that the critics who are flipping for the movie don't love Wallace & Gromit as much as you do and, therefore, require much less to be satiated.

A History of Violence (New Line Cinema)

A Canadian filmmaker's ideas on American violence, the Midwest, mobsters and the Western. In order, he's opposed to it, finds it quaint in a condescending way, has no feel for them whatsoever, and enjoys the ironic parallels to contemporary society. But his lectures you already know. And because he treats this pulp fiction as an experiment in postmodern commentary, get ready for a night at the theater aimed squarely for your brain and no other part of your central nervous system.

My Summer of Love (Universal Studios Home Video)

A book about two ripening young girls was written by a woman, but was then adapted to film by a man, Pawel Pawlikowski. With so much nudity and girl-on-girl kissing, the fear is that the man will gawk too long, lingering over the naughty bits — albeit in an art-house sort of way. Instead, Pawlikowski makes it all almost invisibly erotic.

From the first moment, Mona and Tamsin behave like the sort of precocious, vibrant teenagers lonely bookworms wished they could meet out there in the evil, puberty-smeared world. Both lost, both confused, they fall in love because it's convenient and because they really do love each other. A sliver of a film, it's as slight and memorable as a passing affair. But Pawlikowski gives it an undercurrent — of desire, of melancholy, of wising up when life keeps kicking you around.

Fruit Bats, live at Spaceland (Wednesday, Oct. 5)

Opening act (and much-loved) pop-rockers Irving had finished their show; everybody in the small club had been bouncing off the walls. It was now almost midnight when Fruit Bats came on, and half the crowd had filed out already. Bats leader Eric Johnson got on stage with his backing band and said, "Gather 'round, everybody." He said it sarcastically, but not bitterly — the guy writes campfire songs, after all, and they're meant for people to listen to up close.

A song and a half later, I no longer worried about the early morning ahead of me. Mouthfuls and especially Spelled In Bones are soft, intimate albums of love songs, and although a full band could never turn them into rock anthems, drums and keyboards make them glow. Tunes that felt like glorious atmosphere on disc now walked and talked and carried on full conversations with the listener — soul was meeting body, Ben Gibbard might say.

About an hour later, happy beyond words, I realized that Johnson fit the mold of many indie songwriter I love — strong, regional, his own man. He knows his turf — emotionally and sonically — and he'll take whatever sales he can get. The love in the room was his reward for the career choice he made — a limited audience but endlessly adoring.

The New Pornographers, live at the Henry Fonda Theater (Thursday, Sept. 29)

The keyboardist looks like Corey Feldman, the bassist Ron Perlman — maybe Tom Waits in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Dan Bejar, the sometimes songwriter and vocalist, wandered on for his songs, drunk and surly — vaguely comic, the audience agreed. But your eyes are always on two people: singer-for-hire Neko Case and spiritual center Carl Newman.

Newman's music is slightly alien — its insatiable desire for hooks can turn the songs into freakish collages of bits instead of organic wholes. He makes it work live, particularly on the tracks from 2003's Electric Version which rocks harder than maybe I realized at the time.

Only after the show did I learn how grateful I should have been that Case showed up — her solo career is causing scheduling conflicts, apparently. This band needs her — spitfire or diva, she's a human connection that makes "We escape with the bones of an idol/Escaped with the belt and the title, but our land is gone" sound like bitter wisdom and not just some cool stuff that rhymes.

Constantines, Tournament of Hearts (Sub Pop)

One of the things I'm dying for is some great new guitar bands. Ambulance Ltd. is the most recent, but that's been more than 12 months ago. Constantines gets close — love their intensity and their absolute refusal to do a song that solos or jams unnecessarily. And the drama of "You Are a Conductor" and the vulnerability of "Windy Road" to close the album — love it, love it, love it. They have a sound, now they just need to own it.

The Magic Numbers, The Magic Numbers (Heavenly/Capitol)

A foursome made up of two brother-and-sister teams — that's the marketing hook. Pop harmonies abound — if an instrument isn't chiming it's brightly clicking in the background. After long exposures to this music, I accept its warmth, its familial bear hug that offers, "Hey, everything's gonna be OK." But its winsome tone starts to feel like a gimmick after a while. Maybe they're just this happy? But as a listener, ask yourself this: How many consecutive sunny days can any sane person stand?

D.H.T., "Listen to Your Heart" (from Listen to Your Heart, Robbins)

Songs live on, even if their creators were nothing special. Take "Listen to Your Heart." Originally done by Roxette. Who? Yes, exactly. Never much of a group — had a few hits and that was that. Except maybe not. Now comes a new band, equally anonymous with the correct facial features and hair to be stars, singing that same song. But there is sincerity to the singing, the arrangement stays away from mawkish and, what do you know, I never catch myself wanting to flip the dial. Maybe it was the song, maybe it's the singer. These things are always a little bit of a mystery.

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