I count Jackson Browne among my favourite songwriters, even though I don’t much like anything he’s done since the year I was born. Which says a lot about what he accomplished before that. Indeed, Browne’s run of five records from 1972’s self-titled debut through to 1977’s Running on Empty stands as an amazing, almost unmatched feat of consistency and superlative artistry. Then it all went… weird.
Like so many artists who came into their own in the ‘70s (Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young), Browne couldn’t figure out the post-new wave Reagan years. Leading off with 1980’s Hold Out (ironically his first record to hit number one on the charts) and slipping through Lawyers in Love (1983) and Lives in the Balance (1986), Browne (like so many others) turned increasingly to slick production values, political earnestness, and undercooked melodies, burying his best intentions in schlock. Though there have been high points on each of his ensuing records (five more albums of new material have been released since 1986), these are fewer than one would expect considering the utterly indelible brilliance of Browne’s remarkable ‘70s run. So it goes, I guess. Damn.
This (mostly) concert film was first aired on the Disney Channel in 1994, and has since been out of circulation. Coming, as it does, 14 years after what many fans (myself, obviously, included) consider as his turn away from his best work, it suffers from an inevitable inconsistency of material. When playing his early songs – “Doctor My Eyes”, “For Everyman”, “Running on Empty”, “These Days”, “Your Bright Baby Blues” – it’s tough not to consider Browne’s legacy as a master singer-songwriter in the confessional vein.
However, when he and the band drift into then-newer stuff – “I’m Alive”, “World in Motion”, “Lives in the Balance”, “My Problem is You”, an amazingly unnecessary cover of “All Along the Watchtower” – it’s tough not to feel a bit, well, bored. Even the musicians involved seem to be less than inspired when playing these cuts; their energy is up so much higher when they hit the old “greatest hits”. Same for the sound stage studio audience where the show was filmed.
It’s not just this concert, as the film interweaves old footage, interviews (current and past), and other material into its whole. The result is a fairly satisfying portrait of the artist, though major episodes are completely overlooked. For example, the death by suicide of Browne’s first wife (about whom, and about whose tragic end, Browne penned a fair amount of material in the mid-‘70s) is never mentioned. Nor is Browne’s famous cocaine addiction (which he also sang about in the late ‘70s). Nor is mentioned the ugly episode (which most now know never to have actually transpired) where he allegedly beat his then-girlfriend, Darryl Hannah, in the late-‘80s.
Glossing over these events, issues, and noisy moments feels uncomfortable – we are being asked to take a closer look at this man, his work, his writing procedures, his musical influences and aspirations, but not to learn about (or confront) his life in public. Instead, a lengthy portion of the film emphasizes Browne’s political activism after 1980, and his work with Bonnie Raitt (and others) on Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), an anti-nuclear power charity. This is fine, but it feels unhelpful after a while (and not least because this work overlaps with some of the weakest musical material of his career).
Still, there are thrilling moments to be had. The version of “Your Bright Baby Blues” – a highlight from Browne’s 1976 record The Pretenders – is stripped down and gorgeous. The clever presentation of “Doctor My Eyes”, Browne’s first hit song, starts with them playing it in 1993, and keeps cutting back through older and older footage until we are watching a very young man singing a pretty new tune.
Finally, the moments the film presents between old friends and musical brothers-in-arms Browne and maxi-instrumentalist David Lindley – in which they banter, share musical secrets, talk technique, and yuk it up – are wonderfully warm, entertaining, and revealing. More of that, and less of the other stuff, and this could have been a real study of a musical genius. Instead, it is merely an intermittently riveting overview.
(Kind of unbelievably, this re-release offers exactly zero special features. Nothing.)