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It's always hard to gauge what one will uncover when viewing a DVD about a band that's basically "unauthorized" - containing no actual interviews with the band members themselves, just words from those who worked with and surrounded them. The Smiths - Under Review is a definite exception to this rule, as this excellent documentary takes you through the band's entire career via in-depth and thoroughly engaging interviews with a cadre of journalists and producers who worked very closely with the seminal UK pop band, including John Porter and Stephen Street. Factory Records head Tony Wilson and longtime band associate Grant Showbiz also provide some colorful commentary, as do journalists like Paul Morley and Nigel Williamson, who, while they are clearly fans, are not afraid to criticize where criticism is deserved. The results provide nary a boring moment for even the most casual Smiths fan.
The documentary uses the words of the interviewees to tell the story, keeping voice over narration to an absolute minimum. Of course, the music is the focus here, and The Smiths' numerous TV appearances on shows like Top of the Pops are scattered throughout, as well as the handful of promotional videos that they made throughout their career. Listening to the band's music in the single-by-single, album-by-album order they are presented in gives abundant evidence of the genius of the Morrissey/Marr songwriting team, although Mike Joyce (drums) and Andy Rourke (bass) are given their due as well - perhaps the most underrated "backing band" in the history of pop music. The DVD picks up just before the band's signing with Rough Trade (which was put into motion at the seventh Smiths gig ever in the University of London Union), a coup for indie music and for The Smiths themselves, as they were allowed the freedom to release singles throughout their career that focused more on their creativity and less on providing record company hits - although many did, regardless.
After their relatively morose but fantastic eponymous debut, the band fired John Porter, and in interviews about the events, the producer comes off as whimsical but fairly good-natured. Stephen Street provides some of the most insightful commentary, as he basically worked with the band for the rest of their career and even into Morrissey's solo trajectory. Some interesting pseudo-scandals are touched upon throughout, such as Morrissey's apparently disparaging remarks about black music (he said he didn't like reggae, take it as you will) and the tabloid fodder that songs like "Suffer Little Children" and "Meat is Murder" begat.
One of the extras on the DVD that is especially of interest is the "After the Split" section, which features commentary from the interviewees about the direction the members took after their posthumous finale, Strangeways Here We Come. Tony Wilson provides some good laughs as he describes the second album from Electronic, Johnny Marr's post-Smiths project with New Order's Bernard Sumner. He talks about how boring the album was, but blames it on Sumner being part of a British government test with Prozac, a relatively new drug at the time. Another feature is "The Hardest Smiths Interactive Quiz in the World Ever," a test that this writer, who was perhaps too big for his britches, failed miserably.
The Smiths - Under Review is an excellent music documentary, edited together at a brisk pace and never allowed to become bogged down with extended commentary from any one speaker. Fortunately, the interviews, and more importantly the band at the center of the film, are immensely entertaining. The Smiths are easily one of the most important British bands of the '80s (and perhaps ever), and the film poses the question: what more would they have contributed to pop music if Morrissey and Marr had found a way to continue to work together? While Morrissey has gone on to continued stardom, Marr has never really found his groove, which is a shame since he is one of modern rock's finest guitar players and songwriters. Now that he's apparently a fulltime Modest Mouser, there may be a renewal of his energies, but that's another review... For the history of The Smiths, though, this DVD is an extremely good starting place. SEE ALSO: www.mvdb2b.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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