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In the 30 years since Jonathan Demme redefined the genre with Talking Heads classic Stop Making Sense, hardly any concert-films have mustered sufficient creative chops to appeal beyond their inescapably narrow target demographic of die-hard fans. Back To Front: Peter Gabriel Live proves no exception: a competently-assembled, unambiguously celebratory enterprise designed to attract admirers of the veteran British singer-songwriter-musician on large and small screens, and make barely a ripple otherwise. Rolling out for one-night and two-night screenings across Europe and Australia this month, with Brazil to follow in May and perhaps North American exposure later on, it has obvious long-term commercial prospects on VOD and DVD.
The latter release will presumably include the five mysterious omissions from the identical set-lists performed by Gabriel and his band on October 21/22, 2012 at south London’s 20,000-capacity 02 Arena–the two gigs are seamlessly spliced together to give the illusion of a single show. Because while the core of the concert is a 25-years-on rendition of Gabriel’s multi-million selling long-player So, acolytes will instantly spot that two of the album’s tracks are absent–closer ‘This Is the Picture’ and ‘Big Time’, which emulated its predecessor ‘Sledgehammer’ (still Gabriel’s signature track) by cracking the Billboard top ten and is the most conspicuous absentee here.
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The lack of ‘Big Time’ is particularly odd as this is both show and a film derives much momentum from upbeat numbers such as reliable crowdpleaser ‘Sledgehammer’ and Gabriel’s classic 1977 single ‘Solsbury Hill’, his debut release after leaving Genesis. On record a soulful, even slightly elegiac affair, this ambitious slice of introspection written in a radical 7/4 time-signature becomes something of a folky knees-up, with Gabriel and two of his band-members capering around the stage while director Hamilton interpolates images from previous concerts’ renditions of the track.
Gabriel, 62 at the time of filming, is significantly balder, greyer and jowlier than his dashing younger self but retains impressive reserves of energy (his father, it’s worth noting, remained active up until his death aged 100). Indeed, when he and two of his long-serving, impeccably professional musicians start running in circles, each of them near-hairless of bounce and bedecked in black functional garb, they fleetingly resemble a more funereal variation on the Blue Man Group.
Such sprightly interludes add welcome pep to what’s often a slightly dour 90-odd minutes, Gabriel’s solo material–with the exception of the relatively commercial, poppy So–always tending towards the reflectively morose end of the spectrum, and the sombre color-scheme imparting a distinctly 1980s-dystopian vibe accentuated by a slightly menacing set of swooping, robotic lighting/camera rigs. Patient fans of Gabriel’s notorious Genesis-era flights-of-fancy will meanwhile obtain eleventh-hour satisfaction via a delightfully Spinal Tap moment during penultimate track ‘The Tower That Ate People’ in which Gabriel vanishes up into the circular maw of what looks like a colossal LifeSaver (only to spoil the effect by near-instantly reappearing in straight-faced socially-engaged mode for traditional closer, ‘Biko’.)
In visual terms, Hamilton is likewise stuck in “back to the future” mode, occasionally and ill-advisedly attempting mild flourishes involving distortions of angle and color. But this is flimsy window-dressing for what’s essentially a ploddingly conventional production, providing an effective but ultimately somewhat unimaginative showcase for Gabriel’s material and his brand of shrewdly flamboyant stagecraft–crisply rendered in state-of-the-art 4K imagery and 5.1 surround sound.
The more we hear about how Gabriel is “innovating all the time”, however, the more incongruous the movie’s MOR stylistics become: “he’s very ahead of his time, very avant-garde, very visionnaire” enthuses his (terrific) drummer Manu Katche, during one of the numerous backslapping talking-head interludes in which the band pays tribute to their front-man or vice-versa. “It’s like he sees everything at the same time,” coos one collaborator, “he’s really brilliant, incredibly creative.”
It’s hard to know why Hamilton has included such cloying encomia, and his decision to have speech running over the introductory parts of songs is especially regrettable. Fortunately So‘s second track, the barnstormingly emotional ‘Red Rain’ is able to withstand such philistine encroachment and emerge as a timeless Gabriel masterwork to rank alongside ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘Here Comes The Flood’, neither of which made it on to the Back To Front set-lists. That’s not Hamilton and company’s fault, of course, and when discussing such productions it’s important to differentiate criticism of the show from criticism of the film itself.
The British director, whose association with Gabriel’s Real World production company goes back to 2003 Milan concert-pic Growing Up Live, displays the safe pair of hands that have landed him dozens of high-profile as-live commissions since the end of the last century, including both the 2010 and 2014 Academy Awards telecasts. But Gabriel, whose creative fire seems to have steadily ebbed with each decade, should really seek out more challenging collaborators if he wants such projects to feel more like significant additions to his career rather than slickly-mounted cash-ins. He has worked with groundbreaking Mexican writer-director Guillermo Arriaga in the past, and muses here on their contact before performing the haunting slowie which emerged from it, ‘Why Don’t You Show Yourself?’ Who knows–maybe Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Amat Escalante or Carlos Reygadas are hardcore Gabrielites, just waiting for the call.
Production companies: Done+Dusted, Real World
Director: Hamish Hamilton
Producers: Katy Mullan Joss Crowley
Executive producers: Mike Large, Ian Stewart, Geoffrey Kempin, Terry Shand
Director of photography: Brett Turnbull
Sales: Eagle Rock Entertainment, London
No MPAA rating, 98 minutes
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