Morrissey 25: Live: Film Review

"Morrissey 25: Live"
Cult British crooner preaches to the Hollywood faithful.

Remarkable singer marks quarter century milestone with unremarkable concert film.

On March 2 this year, Morrissey and his band played an unusually intimate show at the iconic Hollywood High School, directly after their more conventional sell-out performance at LA’s Staples Center. The choice of location was well-suited to a cult British singer who has long been fascinated with vintage Tinseltown glamour, a sometime Hollywood resident who self-consciously apes the matinee-idol mystique of Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Director James Russell filmed the show for this concert movie, which premieres on theater screens in late August ahead of its DVD release in October.

25: Live marks the 25th anniversary of Morrissey’s solo career, which began with the untimely demise of his previous group, seminal British indie-rockers the Smiths. The film should feel like a celebration, but it arrives in the middle of a rocky year for the 54-year-old singer, with numerous show cancellations due to ill health and poor ticket sales. The Hollywood High show may have sold out in 12 seconds, but Morrissey is currently without a record label, and has hinted recently that he is considering retirement. If this film proves to be his swansong, it will be an indifferent epitaph aimed squarely at hardcore fans rather than potential new converts.

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A master of provocative public statements and witty, literate, emotionally charged lyrics, Morrissey has always attracted a fiercely passionate following. 25: Live opens with brief vox pops in which tattoo-covered Angelenos express their near-religious devotion for the singer. Later, between songs, he hands his microphone to audience members who outdo themselves in gushing reverence. It is hard to imagine even the most blinkered disciple enjoying this sickly ritual, which feels more suited to North Korean dictators than pop stars. But Morrissey laps up their adulation, seemingly unembarrassed.

The original performance began with an onstage introduction by Morrissey’s friend and cheerleader Russell Brand, a heartfelt eulogy which – bizarrely – has been cut from the finished film. Brand and other celebrity acolytes, including Patti Smith, are now glimpsed only fleetingly in an opening montage. This is a baffling omission, considering Brand is not just an eloquent orator but arguably more famous nowadays than Morrissey himself. But as we long-suffering fans know all too well, the Oscar Wilde of pop moves in mysterious ways.

25: Live is a straight record of the concert, disappointingly lacking in context or personal insights. Russell shoots from multiple angles, his digital cameras plus 35mm lenses bringing a glossy cinematic look. But the visual grammar is still conventional, with no fresh stylistic twists besides a blaze of jolting jump-cuts during the thunderous avant-rock introduction to Let Me Kiss You. An effective bit of mood enhancement, but the exception rather than the rule.

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Among the musical highlights are a clutch of Smiths classics. They include a scouringly heavy remake of Meat Is Murder, an angry vegetarian manifesto illustrated with hellish visual clips of animal cruelty, and a graceful rearrangement of the melancholy ballad Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want. Fans of Morrissey’s retro-crooner side will also enjoy his sumptuous, feverishly melodramatic cover version of Frankie Valli’s 1967 torch song, To Give (The Reason I Live).

Morrissey’s post-Smiths solo material does not hold up quite so well, partly because he insists on dusting down third-rate clunkers such as Ouija Board, Ouija Board and You’re The One For Me, Fatty. Even his better songs, notably Irish Blood, English Heart and Everyday Is Like Sunday, are often manhandled clumsily by his current band. Much like the singer himself, who appears increasingly uncomfortable onstage as he ages, much of this back catalog has become sluggish and sclerotic over the years. Some creative refreshment and re-invention is long overdue.

Compared to the last official Morrissey concert film, Who Put The M In Manchester? In 2004, 25: Live is a largely lackluster affair. Which is frustrating, because the singer remains a unique cultural icon, with more than enough musical treasure and prickly charisma to make a Don’t Look Back or a Stop Making Sense. But that would require a heavyweight director to challenge and cajole him out of his mid-life comfort zone. Until then, he will continue to preach to the converted with perfunctory promotional items like this, which is as good as it needs to be but no more.

Production companies: Nineteen Fifteen, Eagle Rock Entertainment

Producer: Vicki Betihavas

Starring: Morrissey, Boz Boorer, Jesse Tobias, Solomon Walker

Director: James Russell

Cinematographer: Nick Wheeler

Rating TBC, 92 minutes