Monday, December 31, 2007

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "The Road to God Knows Where" (DVD - Mute Films 2005)

The first thing you should know is this is not a concert film. It does, however, come packaged with a live performance on another disc - Live at The Paradiso - which alone is worth the purchase price. However, as anyone who's seen Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds live will tell you, it's something you've just got to see for yourself. Even on video. The Road to God Knows Where provides an entirely different, if no less interesting, perspective.

Filmed during The Bad Seeds North American tour over February and March of 1989, The Road to God Knows Where should be required viewing not only for fans of Nick Cave, but anyone interested in pursuing a career on the creative side of the music business. The pacing is slow and can seem at times to be tedious, which easily could have been deliberate on the part of filmmaker Uli Schueppel. Peppered with brief live moments, only the beginning or end of sets or songs for a large part of the movie, in combination with long intervals back stage, on the tour bus, in hotels, etc., the film provides about as realistic as possible capture of what it's like to be on tour in a rock 'n' roll band. Especially a misunderstood one skirting the fringes of success.

This isn't as apparent in the first half of the film. Cave is admittedly uncomfortable in front of cameras and his self-consciousness, along with that of the rest of the band, is apparent. It leads to some unintentional moments of comedy - Blixa Bargeld trying to pretend he knows the words and can sing along to "Lost Highway" as Cave strums and sings is pretty funny stuff considering Bargeld's musical pedigree. Primarily, though, it sticks to the soul breakingly monotonous nuts and bolts of touring - long bus rides, sound checks, waiting backstage, photo shoots, sycophantic fans, and pushy music writers. The focus is on the bands' attempts to find something, anything, to pass the time and keep it together. They do this admirably, at least while the cameras are rolling, but as things wear on and nerves start to fray the self-consciousness fades away. Things start to get really interesting.

While the band doesn't turn on each other, their frustrations emerge in almost cartoonishly exaggerated reactions to the pitfalls they encounter. This may be film trickery - Scheuppel dropping us into the middle of an altercation and not providing the context - but it certainly seems like the altercations covered went from zero to sixty almost immediately. The standouts involve promoters who were clearly not expecting a professional touring outfit to show up and had either not read the contract or willfully ignored important details.

The first is more drawn out and involves a promoter who did not, ahem, provide the agreed upon promotion. The venue is close to selling out - a development the promoter obviously thought was not remotely possible - and the band is insisting on more money versus refusing to play at all. Cave stalks off in the middle of the argument leaving Bargeld, rather unfairly, to carry on the fight. The resolution is not mentioned, but the band does play.

The second covers an explosive confrontation over the size and wattage of the venue's sound system. The contract specifications for sound have not been met and soundman Victor Van Vugt, tour manager Rayner Jesson, and Cave are facing off with the promoter over the inadequate system. The promoter ignorantly puts his foot in it saying, "This system was fine for Flock of Seagulls!", which leads to Cave again stalking off after a declaration that the band won't play if the contract isn't met. Almost immediately the promoter puts his foot in it again when he makes a derogatory reference about Cave, "that other guy", to Jesson. "Our boss," replies Jesson, "The man you signed the contract with." We're once again not privy to whatever settlement is reached, but the band does play.

In addition to these standout blow-ups, you see Cave and the rest becoming increasingly glassy eyed and distant in their interactions with anyone outside the group. There's a subtly tense backstage conversation between Jesson and Cave in which the tour manager seems to be suggesting that they cancel most of the rest of the tour. Cave's frustration with press people boils over with a writer and photographer from L.A. Weekly, towards whom he directs open eye-rolling hostility. The sense of relief at dealing with a promoter they know in San Francisco is palpable.

Schueppel shot this film in fairly high contrast black and white which, given the stark winter landscape through which the band is traveling, works well. It's not quite as effective when the band reaches Los Angeles, but that hardly ruins things.

As the film progresses and tensions mount the live performances become longer and more pervasive. This change cleverly provides the release for all the tension, both with the band and the viewers. Right before launching into "New Morning", the last performance of the film, Cave announces, "This is the last song of our North American tour. Thank God for that." After the ride just taken with him, one can easily relate.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4


Anonymous said...

great review and great film

Anonymous said...

PS: Just read that Rayner Jesson (the manager) passed away in 2007. I have that DVD, I love Rayner in it. I also love Victor, he looked so sweet and wholesome then!

MiseryCreek said...

What a goddamned drag...