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The Smiths: The Complete Picture is a shortish (50 minutes or so) 2002 DVD collection of 1980s appearances by the short lived but iconic group on Top of the Pops with a smattering of music videos (mostly some very strange and willfully obscure Derek Jarman directed films). It's far from the "complete picture" of course and Smiths fans are rather sniffy about this DVD for its randomness and cobbled together feel but I've always found it quite good fun and interesting anyway. There are fourteen Smiths songs presented here either in lip synching television performances or through music videos. The Smiths saw themselves as traditionalists and hated music videos so Jarman's arty films were made without their presence or input and they only feature flickeringly and enigmatically in grainy archive footage within them. The two films here that do feel like traditional music videos though are the ones for This Charming Man and Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before. The latter has a bespectacled and sometimes genuinely reflective looking Morrissey wandering and bicycling around the shuttered terraces and red-brick portico of his old Manchester haunts in biting October sleet. He's followed on his bike by a group of fans wearing Smiths t-shirts. The young fans answered an advert in a Smiths fanzine to take part and although they appear to all be on the verge of pneumonia it looks a good time was had by all. I think "I started Something I Couldn't Finish" was originally the A-side and used for this video after Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before's line about planning a mass murder was deemed as being too sensitive in the wake of Hungerford. I'm glad they switched for this DVD again though because Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before is sooooo much better and works wonderfully with the film. Morrissey's line about planning a mass murder was in a flippant throwaway context anyway and not very serious.
The video for This Charming Man is very simple and just has the group performing in a pretty flower strewn studio - Morrissey swinging gladioli around like a lasso. It's a great song and a nice film. This wasn't the first Smiths single but it was right at the start of their career and helped put them on the map with its catchy guitar riffs and distinctive Morrissey lyrics which are ambiguous and seeped in 1960s kitchen sink New Wave. "Punctured bicycle, on a hillside desolate, will nature make a man of me yet?" Derek Jarman's specially commissioned 15-minute film (which was screened at the Edinburgh Festival and shown with the Alex Cox picture Sid & Nancy in cinemas) includes The Queen Is Dead and morphs into There Is A Light That Never Goes Out and Panic. Three great songs, the second of which is arguably the greatest Smiths song ever, chosen to highlight the range and greatness of The Smiths. Jarman uses multiple fast cuts to evoke chaotic disorder and disorientation and evokes the spirit of the songs well at times here - especially Panic with its haunting chants and intimations of a crumbling society that is being turned into mush by the blandness of mainstream popular culture. The film is interesting if unavoidably self-indulgent and pretentious. Smiths fans will be glad to own the film but I'm not sure how many times they would actually watch it again after the initial mildly curious viewing.
Girlfriend In A Coma is represented by a wonderful video directed by Tim Broad that works because of its simplicity as much as anything. It intercuts footage of Morrissey singing (just his head really) with a backdrop of clips from the 1964 British drama film The Leather Boys (all about the rocker subculture in London with a gay motorcyclist and Rita Tushingham). A very beautiful song and an equally charming video. It's symbolic in a way that Morrissey is alone here without Johnny Marr because the group would not be together for much longer and the unlikely but majestic partnership between the two very different men was drawing to a premature close. Shoplifters Of The World Unite is performed by The Smiths on the spangled neon lit super space age set of Top of the Pops in the distant far off futuristic 1980s. They don't quite seem to be a natural fit for Top of the Pops and Morrissey is fully aware of this, refusing to take it seriously at all and looking rather amused that he is even there. He doesn't even bother with a microphone to pretend he is singing live and generally just camps it up, pulling faces and making gestures to the camera and the audience. He can't dance to save his life but he has a strange eccentric charisma and presence that makes you just always focus on him rather than Johnny Marr or the others. Morrissey is wearing a denim jacket, jeans and a Smiths t-shirt here and actually doesn't look that dated all things considering. Johnny Marr is frequently the one who looks ridiculous here on the DVD through the passage of time.
Morrissey's general air of seeming to find Top of the Pops ridiculous is continued with the breezy Sheila Take A Bow. He just stands there in a blue shirt pulling faces and striking camp poses! Not quite sure what is going on with Johnny Marr's outfit here again. He seems to be wearing a beret for heaven's sake. Morrissey seems a bit more into Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now than some of the other songs, famously wearing a hearing aid for this performance. Why Morrissey used to wear a hearing aid sometimes I couldn't actually tell you at this precise moment. I believe his hearing was fine. He looks somewhat incongruous in these red lit vaguely industrial surroundings though. It's like he's singing on the set of Red Dwarf or something. Johnny Marr's leather jacket and sunglasses probably don't really fit in with The Smiths and the mood of the song here. It's not his finest wardrobe hour and he's posing a bit too much for my liking. The melodramatic song though is always rather nice and nowhere near as depressing as its reputation and title would suggest. It's a self-deprecating song and the music is lovely and the juxtaposition of performing a song called Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now in front of a load of bopping teenagers juggling balloons is amusing anyway.
What Difference Does It Make? finds Morrissey in a blue shirt swirling around with his hands in the air looking like he is having fun actually. Maybe he enjoyed this one and one got bored with Top of the Pops later on. Great guitar sound by Johnny Marr on this tune. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side is again performed without microphone on TOTP in theatrical fashion by Morrissey. Actually The Smiths look very content and cool here, Morrissey very willowy and ethereal and dressed all in black. It's a lovely song really. How Soon Is Now? - one of the greatest of all Smiths songs - has another arty obtuse Jarman video. All industrial and avant garde with snippets of The Smiths performing (including a nice bit where Johnny Marr seems to be teaching an intrigued Morrissey a few guitar chords). Jarman jump cuts and repeats images in his usual abstract style. It's quite effective and I like the girl in the video. Finally there is another Jarman video for Ask. I'm tempted to say now that if you've seen on Derek Jarman Smiths video you've seen them all. This was filmed in Wapping without The Smiths and is no great deviation from the style he has employed for the other films.
The Smiths: The Complete Picture is fun if you are a fan who hasn't seen all of this stuff but the short running time and cobbled together feel of the DVD are obvious drawbacks. At the time of writing you can either borrow this from Lady Bracknell's extensive and lavish Smiths/Morrissey library or buy it for about £6.
In the past when there was less TV available, people tended to have watched the same programme as you the night before, always leading to easy conversation with your workmates. I can remember being stuck in a car going from Reading to London with two of my colleagues from work in 1984 when I was 20. Both were middle aged, yet both had watched Top of the Pops" the night before.
They both asked if I had seen that "weird bloke" with "flowers in his arse" singing a song called "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now". I had, and more than that I was a bit irked at Morrissey, the lead singer of the Smiths, being described thus. This dissolved rapidly however when both colleagues admitted to finding the song hilarious before conversation turned to something more mundane.
It's funny how I can still remember that conversation almost 30 years on, but the Smiths were a band who, for all they had a very ordinary name, were extraordinary when it came to making music. They never topped the singles chart but they released some hugely influential music during their career.
Many bands from the 1980s have huge back catalogues of music videos but the Smiths don't, purely because they remained on an independent label, Rough Trade, for so long. As a result there's not much in the way of music videos so the compiler for this collection, entitled "The Complete Picture" had to go knocking on the door of the archive holders for "The Tube" and "Top of the Pops" rather a lot.
Looking back at the videos here it's amazing how strong an image the Smiths had. This may sound bizarre to some - apparently they were often told by producers on Top of the Pops that they would have to get into costume only to be told they were in costume. Johnny Marr's jet black hair and copious use of sunglasses coupled with Morrissey's huge quiff and NHS glasses gave them an image many have copied but never been able to carry off with such aplomb.
As a result the overall look of the band in the clips on "The Complete Picture" doesn't look particularly dated - which is nothing short of a miracle when you consider what other bands were wearing at the time. The look seems to be vintage American with a British twist - those NHS glasses and a wired hearing aid being put to especially good use by Morrissey with Levi 501s.
There's no live footage here so every clip, even those gleaned from TV appearances, are mimed. To be fair to the Smiths they didn't turn their nose up at "Top of the Pops" in the way many of their contemporaries did, which is a blessed relief when they made so few music videos.
Opening video "This Charming Man", which sees Morrissey miming into a microphone whilst surrounded by foliage was originally broadcast on "The Tube". This is interesting as on all the "Top of the Pops" clips he doesn't go near a microphone or make any pretence of performing live.
The "Top of the Pops" clips vary from the hilariously droll and aforementioned "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" to a stiff performance of "Sheila Take a Bow". The problem with "Top of the Pops" in the 1980s was an executive producer who insisted on giving the show a party atmosphere so Morrissey spends much of the time dodging balloons whilst trying to give a performance that stays just on the right side of ironic.
That the Smiths were able to generally overcome this setting which jarred horribly with their music is admirable and even Morrissey's lack of any co-ordination when moving around the stage is contagiously amusing.
Derek Jarman directed three of the videos here, including "Panic" and "Ask". Both videos are charmingly amateurish with Jarman's love of Super 8mm film clearly evident. You could argue they are high art but "The Queen is Dead" is perhaps more deserving of that description. Subtitled "a film by Derek Jarman" it includes footage shot over the songs "The Queen is Dead" and "There is a Light that Never Goes Out" finishing with a reworking of the "Panic" video omitting a live performance from the band which is on the original stand alone video.
"The Queen is Dead" trilogy isn't really to my taste - it tries to be surreal but only really works during the section for "There is a Light that Never Goes Out", managing to convey with some beautiful photography a rather rose tinted look at love. Watching it again I was amazed at how often the style of Jarman's photography has been copied in other music videos over the years, especially the way he would cut from shot to shot at break neck speed.
The glossiest video on the DVD is "Girlfriend in a Coma" and I must admit I love how it features Morrissey appearing over clips from a long forgotten 1964 Rita Tushingham film about rockers called "The Leather Boys". There's no denying Morrissey was a handsome devil, to pinch the title of another Smiths' song, and he is sumptuously photographed here in both colour and black and white.
"Girlfriend in a Coma" was directed by Tim Broad, and Broad also directs "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before". The video is filmed on location in Salford and features Morrissey riding his bike whilst being followed by fans who have all copied his look. In some shots you have to look twice before you realise it isn't Morrissey but watching the video what struck me the most was how the video celebrates Morrissey as an icon quite blatantly as he is followed around the area by a group of acolytes.
"How Soon is Now" is probably one of my favourite Smiths song and the video is perhaps the most successful even though it's all rather lo-fi. There is footage of the band performing live which looks as if it was recorded using a hand held video camera in front of a TV showing the original footage, interspersed with shots of a woman dancing in both colour and black and white which look as if it too were shot on a Super 8mm camera. There's also a video clip of Johnny Marr trying to show Morrissey how to play the guitar which is grainy and fuzzy in the way old analogue video was. The whole thing works rather well and I prefer it to the Jarman videos perhaps because the artistry is in how the directors have used the lower quality images to their advantage.
The total running time of "The Complete Picture" is a mere 50 minutes and none of the videos are in widescreen mode - all are in the 4:3 format. There are no extras and the liner notes are minimal.
At the end of the day this is probably for fans only and sadly for all those "Top of the Pops" clips is probably the best compilation of video clips that fans are going to get due to a distinct lack of promo videos. Some live footage of the band would have made for something more deserving of the title The Complete Picture but sadly you need to visit YouTube for that.