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Spectacle: Elvis Costello with... Season One

(2008) **** Unrated
650 min. Sundance Channel.

/content/films/3640/1.jpgElvis Costello's interview/musical performance hour Spectacle is, of course, aptly named. Costello's specs have always been a part of his image, and the word correctly conjures both goals of the program: to look more closely at musical artists and to present performances that are truly "something to see." Because Costello is himself so hugely talented as an eclectic songwriter and performer, because his taste is so impeccable, and because he is such a cultural magpie, with an intellectual curiosity and a generally endearing eagerness, Spectacle is a wholly addictive musical program for the ages.

The thirteen episodes of Season One kick off with an hour featuring executive producer Sir Elton John. It's typical of the shows that follow. The segment begins with Costello performing "Border Song" (guitar and vocals) backed by a band that includes Alvin Toussaint (piano and vocals); then, with a "carnival barker meets soul man" intro, Costello brings out John for a freewheeling discussion of his musical lineage and friendships and collaborations. Name-dropping is part of the point of digging up key influences, and John obliges by mentioning The Beatles, James Taylor, Liberace, Patti LaBelle, Billy Stewart, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Laura Nyro, David Ackles, Garnet Mimms, Betty Everett (and that's only a partial list). Costello runs clips of a few of them in performance, and in two of the show's "illustrative performances," John takes to the piano to demonstrate the styles of Russell and Nyro, as they influenced him. John and Costello and the house band perform "Workin' in the Coal Mine" (co-written by Toussaint). The conversation continues as host and guest exchange notes about their stage names, discuss John's amazing encounters with Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, and reach the conclusion—articulated by John—"We're music-crazy, both of us." On that note, the two duet on the David Ackles song "Down River."

I'd say you get your money's worth right there (and more so, if you're watching the show on Sundance Channel). But the hits keep coming, in a season that includes over sixty such musical performances. Costello talks to President Bill Clinton (a fascinating autobiographical hour about Clinton's love of music from childhood to the Oval Office, as well as his own musicianship), the reunited The Police, Smokey Robinson, Rufus Wainwright, Jakob Dylan, Jenny Lewis, She & Him, Herbie Hancock, Roseanne Cash, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, James Taylor and Renée Fleming. Costello steps aside for one episode so Elton John can interview jazz singer (and Costello's wife) Diana Krall. In an earlier outing, Tony Bennett unexpectedly called Krall out of the audience for a duet, one of the unscripted moments Costello has sought to enable.

The Lou Reed episode is full of them, as Reed recalls the importance held in his life and career by The Drifters, Doc Pomus, and great Jimmy Scott; then demonstrates how people get the riff from "Sweet Jane" wrong; then duets with Costello on "Perfect Day" before Costello invites out of the audience the eccentric painter and film director Julian Schnabel, Reed's New York neighbor and the director of a concert film of Reed's Berlin. Schnabel and Reed take turns telling the emotional story of the death of Schnabel's father, and Schnabel spontaneously recites the lyrics of "Rock Minuet," before Costello and Reed close out the show with a joint rendition of "Set the Twilight Reeling." Costello is indeed "music-crazy," crazy for rock through the ages, jazz, country and bluegrass, R&B, opera, you name it. Here's hoping he keeps the Spectacles coming well into his twilight years.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 4

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 11/17/2009

Distributor: Music Video Distribution

The four-disc Season One set for Spectacle: Elvis Costello with... absolutely must be seen and heard on Blu-ray. With brilliant color, spot-on black level and contrast, and sharp detail yielding an image with depth and "pop," Spectacle is easily one of the sharpest-looking titles in my collection. And though nothing blows up, the DTS-HD Surround 5.1 and Stereo options are both stunning, giving a warm and full-bodied presentation to what are some of the greatest musical performances produced for television this decade.

This four-disc set is mostly about putting this well-named show on the shelf for fans, but happily some terrific bonu features are included. Bonus Songs comprise four extra Costello performances: "Ballad of a Well Known Gun" (4:48, HD), "Beginning to See the Light" (4:57, HD), "Purple Haze," with the Police (3:04, HD), and "No More Tearstained Makeup" (3:27, HD). The four songs come with a Play All option.

The backstage chats in the Bonus Interview Footage section include "Elvis Costello" (13:27, HD) talking about the show in concept and execution, "Elton John" (11:54, HD), "Rufus Wainwright" (5:13, HD), "Sting" (3:27, HD), "Roseanne Cash" (7:27, HD), and "Smokey Robinson" (3:07, HD). All are worth a look, but the chat with Costello about his purpose is essential.

To anyone with good taste in music, I can't recommend this title highly enough, and, yes, I'll say it: this would make a great Christmas gift for the music-lover in your life.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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