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The Smiths - The Queen is Dead - A Classic Album Under Review (2008) (DVD)

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Genre: Music DVDs / Exempt / DVD released 2008-05-26 by Plastic Head / Features of the DVD: Colour, DVD-Video, PAL

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      09.09.2011 15:31
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      The Queen Is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review is a 2008 documentary film about (obviously) the famous 1986 album of the same name. From the weird sample from the film The L-Shaped Room at the beginning through to Morrissey somehow managing to reference Carry On Cleo in the closing song, The Queen Is Dead is a diverse and at times remarkable album that seems to have achieved immortal status in the decades since its release. Not bad for a record that contains Vicar In A Tutu! This is a strangely flat film though with no credited director or visual style and is probably far too long for its own good at 2 hours. It's narrated by Thomas Arnold (whoever he is) and cuts together a number of talking heads (Stephen Street, Craig Gannon, Johnny Rogan, Len Browne, Steven Logan, Brett Anderson, Gavin Hopps, Douglas Noble, Grant Showbiz, Tony Wilson) with some archive footage of The Smiths in the studio and performing live. This footage is enjoyable and entertaining although the sort of person who would buy this DVD has probably seen most of it before. A salient problem with this documentary is that neither Morrissey or Johnny Marr had anything to do with it and are only present in archive interviews and footage from the 1980s that the film has cobbled together. You have to make do with "fifth Smith" Craig Gannon - who replaced Andy Rourke and was then retained when Rourke returned. Gannon is not exactly Peter Ustinov when it comes to taking a wander down memory lane and so you do rather wish the more savvy Johnny Marr had been involved (as he was in a BBC Smiths special of this type a while back).

      I suppose the most important person here they speak to musically apart from Rourke is producer Stephen Street. He's not that interesting though to be honest. He says Johnny Marr was wonderful at improvisation and coming up with incredible intros and guitar riffs but you'd rather hear it all from Marr's perspective really as he's the single most important person in The Smiths story when it comes to the music. We never quite seem to get around here to the inspiration behind the group. Who inspired Marr the most? What about Morrissey? These questions are addressed in other written biographies but more focus in this documentary would have been interesting. The better contributions come from participants like the late Svengali Tony Wilson - who talks about The Smiths in relation to the politics of independent music and in his usual modest way positions himself as the great pioneer of the movement that The Smiths were part of - and the singer Brett Anderson of Suede. Anderson talks about how much he loves The Smiths and the album in his familiar mumbly sedated but strangely articulate way. He does seem a trifle bored though as if he hasn't had his morning cup of tea and woken up yet. Suede guitarist Bernard Butler was deeply influenced by Johnny Marr and used a Smiths songbook to practice. The film does veer into hagiographic territory when the album is discussed with even the notable stinker on the record Vicar In A Tutu and the so-so Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others emerging unscathed.

      It serves as a reminder though of the great songs on the record and the incredible musical chemistry between the two men that created them. It was the diverse nature of the record and the dexterity of The Smiths that is most admired here more than anything. From the punky The Queen Is Dead to the melodramatic I Know It's Over to the pure pop of The Boy with The Thorn In His Side. Very few groups ever displayed such a range of styles both lyrically and musically and made it work. Harmonic, whimsical, jangly, kitchen sink, flippant, strange, poppy, sad, funny. One problem though is that you always feel like everyone would be better off skipping this film and just listening to the record again if they really wanted to be reminded of its greatness. The insight is rather hit or miss at times although Morrissey/Marr biographer Johnny Rogan is a bit sharper than many of the other contributors here and (as you'd expect from the author of the preposterously and neurotically detailed and exhaustive Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance) has more to say than most on this particular subject. It becomes repetitive though listening to endless people talk about each song. There is only so much you can say really.

      The general gist of the film is that The Smiths were one of the greatest and most important British groups of all time and this was their masterpiece and the record that cemented their lofty historical reputation. They were at the height of their powers after completing Meat Is Murder but cracks were starting to appear beneath the surface. The story that emerges here about the looming fractures within the group is probably more interesting than listening to various journalists authors waffle on about Frankly, Mr Shankly. Bass player Andy Rourke had a heroin problem that was seriously affecting his ability to play and Morrissey - who had cultivated a clean cut flowery image for the group - was not impressed. He left Rourke a note on his car saying he had been booted out but later relented and decided it would be best to bring him back into the fold and keep an eye on him. This album appears to have been the beginning of the end for The Smiths according to the film (and general Smiths folklore). Marr shut himself away to create the music for the record and it was starting to take its toll. He was also becoming weary of the internal politics with debates about whether or not they should leave their independent label. More seriously, as it eventually turned out, Andy Rourke in particular was slowly starting to become wise to the fact that Morrissey and Marr were making much much money and that - contractually - he and drummer Mike Joyce were regarded as little more than hired help. Morrissey and Marr felt that as they wrote the songs together they essentially WERE The Smiths but kept all these details about contracts and money to themselves. It all came to a head in 1997 when Rourke took Morrissey and Marr to the High Court and secured a substantial sum of money.

      The Queen Is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review is really a film only for those who would buy anything with The Smiths slapped on the box. While it's always interesting and has some nice archive I feel that a much better and more attractive documentary could easily have fashioned with this material and the contributions supplied by the talking heads. This is a film that never quite justifies its existence, especially if you are relatively familiar with the album and have seen some of the other Smiths specials floating around. At the time of writing this for completists only DVD is available to buy for just under a tenner.

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