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DVD review: David Byrne, Ride Rise Roar

David Byrne
Ride Rise Roar
[Eagle Rock (2011)]

This combination documentary and concert film about David Byrne’s 2008/2009 tour is a reminder of how eloquently David Byrne illustrates the connection between madness and genius.

Byrne’s strength has always been a profound idiosyncrasy. The stage show here is certainly unlikely to be duplicated, created as it was out of a kind of evolutionary choreography (Annie B-Parson, Noémie Lafrance, and robbinschilds): They put the dancers in a room, and had them dance however they wanted. When they saw someone doing something they liked better, they copied it. When everyone was doing the same thing, they picked it as a dance move. Not all the choreography is as random; some has a much more concrete goal, like the dancers getting their sexy on. The dancing is weird, sometimes formless, and doesn’t always make sense, but excoriating anything related to David Byrne as “weird” or borderline nonsensical is, well, nonsensical. The man wears a tutu in concert for heaven’s sake.

The music is drawn mostly from Talking Heads-era pieces. “Once in a Lifetime” sounds as innovative now as it must have thirty years ago. (The video debuted right around the day I was born.) The interplay among the percussion, Byrne’s perpetually underrated guitar playing, six singers (give or take), and the synthesizer without sounding cluttered is a miracle of arrangement. The concert opens with this song, and it’s a high, if not impossible, bar to reach for the rest of the show. “Road to Nowhere” here sounds tired, perhaps because it’s been transposed into a higher key and missing the octave-up vocal change at the end, though the drums don’t hit quite as hard and the band doesn’t quite have the same swing here as the classic recording. “Burning Down the House” lives up to its name, and the concert film portion closes with “Everything that Happens Will Happen Today,” a nice piece with hardly any instrumentation beyond the voices and a guitar. Byrne rarely looks completely relaxed on stage, but this is a rare moment where he seems comfortable.

The extensive behind-the-scenes coverage, shot in black and white (the concert portion is color) has its own story, taking us from the auditions through to the band packing bicycles into the tour bus.

The film editing is where the movie suffers. Given how much the dancers move, more wide shots, and, more importantly, lengthier shots, would have made it easier to see in context the results of the choreography that the interspersed documentary portion of the film spends so much time on. The best wide shots happens during the credits on “Once in a Lifetime,” but then the film spends a bulk of its time in closeups on Byrne while the dancers flit frustratingly in and out of view.

The music is sure to please any long-time fan of Byrne’s work, though Stop Making Sense is more comprehensive in that regard if anyone has to choose between the films. Folks interested in experimental modern dance will be happy with the documentary portion but disappointed in the concert. Since it splits the difference between being a full on concert film and full-on documentary, as long as you split the difference in your expectations, you’ll be happy.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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