Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Movie Review: Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance, directed by Mark Kidel (2013)

Elvis Costello, 1978.

Elvis Costello, 2010's. His aim is still true.
The 2013 documentary Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance recently aired on the Showtime network, and it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of Costello’s music. Directed by Mark Kidel, a veteran of music documentaries, Mystery Dance interviews Costello himself as well as Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, and Allen Toussaint, among others. Mystery Dance covers Costello’s nearly forty year career in just sixty minutes, and my complaint about the film is that it’s too short. But when I was researching the film for this review, I learned that there’s also a 90-minute version, which has only been shown in the UK. I’d be interested to see the 90-minute version and see what it adds.

Hopefully the longer version adds more details, since Mystery Dance is a little light on those. In the film Costello talks about making an album and says he made it just because it was time to make another album. As he’s talking the film shows the cover for his 1981 album “Trust.” Is that the album Costello is talking about? It’s not clear. If it is, then it’s a damn good album he came up with just because it was time to make another one. I also learned while reading an interview with director Mark Kidel that he visited Paul McCartney’s studio and heard demos that Paul and Elvis made when they were writing songs together. It’s not made clear in the film whose studio it is, and I would have appreciated a little title telling me that I was seeing Paul McCartney’s studio. 

One of the coolest moments in Mystery Dance is when we see a clip of Costello’s father, Ross McManus, singing “If I Had a Hammer” with the Joe Loss band. Father and son look a lot alike, and the film highlights Costello’s relationship with his father, who was a trumpet player and singer. But again, I wanted more details. What did the elder McManus think of his son’s success? What did he think of Costello’s music?

Costello is one of the great singer-songwriters of the rock era, and he’s one of the most versatile, recording with everyone from Burt Bacharach to opera star Anne Sofie von Otter. Costello had a great quote in the movie, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “Whenever you do something that’s a little bit different from what you usually do you get some people who act like it’s the end of the world. It’s not.” Costello is an ideal subject for a documentary, because he’s extremely articulate and intelligent. It’s also apparent how much respect other musicians have for him. Costello’s love for all kinds of music comes through very strongly. It’s great fun to see the wonderful Allen Toussaint talk about recording the album “The River in Reverse” with Costello.

There’s not much of an arc to Costello’s career as presented in Mystery Dance. No dramatic events or turning points are uncovered. I think there’s a lot more to Costello’s story, but maybe he’s saving that for when his autobiography comes out later this year.

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