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Tears for Fears

20th Century Masters: the DVD Collection [DVD]

(Universal; US DVD: 24 Feb 2004; UK DVD: Available as import)

This DVD is way too short. Short.

In a recent Simpsons episode, there is a shot panning across a junkyard. There are signs at the top of each pile, each one a pot shot at the hot trend of the moment that will soon overwhelm landfills everywhere. (Heads up, thongs, your end is nigh.) But the big laugh comes at the sight of an empty space, over which a sign stands tall, declaring, “Reserved for DVDs.”


I now know what they mean. Universal has just released the most meaningless music DVD ever, taking an extremely successful band, with a large and diverse promotional video library, and releasing it as what is for all intents and purposes a DVD single. 20th Century Masters - The Best of Tears For Fears is, frankly, a joke. It contains a measly five videos, approximately a third as many as the band had in rotation at one point or another on MTV. If you strung the number of plays that “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” received on a daily basis at its peak, it would take longer to watch than this 25-minute DVD. Ye gods.


Sure, it’s reasonably priced, going for $7.98 on Amazon.com. But Tears for Fears deserves better than this, especially when the Human League and Pet Shop Boys, both excellent bands but nowhere near as successful as Tears for Fears, are releasing exhaustive DVD compilations of their vids. (Granted, their releases were Canadian, but as long as it’s Region 1, it counts.) The Brits, by comparison, got a better deal: they can buy a DVD of Tears Roll Down, the 12-song compilation that Mercury, the band’s original label, released in 1992. Would it really have been so hard, or expensive, to release Tears Roll Down in its original form in the States as well? Universal, the band’s new “old” label, certainly had no problem releasing ABC’s Absolutely ABC compilation in its original form for DVD, and even expanded Rush’s Chronicles DVD release. And yet, Tears for Fears, one of the most successful UK pop acts of the ‘80s, gets the same video treatment as New Edition, Moody Blues, and Billy Ray Cyrus. It simply boggles the mind, but alas.


Four of the five videos are from the band’s second and biggest album, 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair. Despite advancing considerably in the five years since MTV’s debut, music video was still in its infancy, and many of the videos here represent that awkward transition into adolescence too many bands made, where their videos were no longer playful promotional tools but solemn works of art. (To be fair, though, most of Tears for Fears’ video output was solemn.) The video for “Shout”, for example, finds the band spending most of their time venting their anger on a gorgeous, isolated cliff side, thus making it difficult for the viewer to feel anything resembling frustration when the scenery is so breathtakingly beautiful. Main songwriter Roland Orzabal doesn’t help matters with his hilariously overpronounced lip sync job either, though he can be excused since it was his first real lead performance in a video. (Fellow bandmate Curt Smith handled vocals for all three of the videos from the band’s first album, The Hurting.) In the final scene, where the band shares a studio singing along with a random group of mums and their kids, keyboardist Ian Stanley looks alarmingly like Simon LeBon. He seems to take great pains to prevent that from happening again in the next three videos.


“Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, one of the best driving songs ever, shows Smith, well, driving a lot, his bomber jacket and ponytail wafting in the breeze from his convertible. There’s probably a story line in there somewhere, with Smith stopping to make a call on a pay phone in the desert, but it’s neither clear nor necessary. The band obviously knew they had a big hit on their hands, and didn’t overspend on a splashy video since they knew that, as long as it wasn’t jaw droppingly awful, it would get played. And boy, did it get played.


“Head Over Heels”, which still sounds marvelous, is the one moment where the band loosens up, with Orzabal trying to flirt with an on-duty librarian with impossibly large eyeglasses. His lip sync job here is much better, and his nervous side glances show some humor in an otherwise preposterous setup of him singing these words to a total stranger in a library. There’s a neat shot where Orzabal, shot from the chest up, seemingly floats from the first floor to the second, then back down, perhaps a metaphor for the sensation of being in love. The video also has two other nice details: the sequence showing multiple attempts by Stanley to catch a book without looking (he catches it on the third try), and, of course, the chimp in the Red Sox jersey. It’s still unclear why drummer Manny Elias is dressed up as a rabbi, but either way, they’re clearly enjoying themselves, for a change.


The tone for “Mothers Talk”, released a good nine months after “Head over Heels”, is decidedly different. Using a new US remix of the song, the action cuts between the band on a sound stage and a family of three trying to protect itself from the nuclear war depicted in the song’s lyrics. The band’s look is in stark contrast to their last video: they’re all dressed head to toe in black, and everyone is, if not dancing, at least moving about a lot. Even Elias is standing and moving about as he pretends to play his drums. It appears that, when the Cure released the videos for “In Between Days” and “Close to Me” in late 1985, Tears for Fears were taking detailed notes.


By 1989, when the band resurfaced with their excellent third album


The Seeds of Love
, music video had changed exponentially. If high concept vids like Duran Duran’s “The Wild Boys” were an anomaly in 1984, they were the norm by 1989, due almost exclusively to David Fincher. (He’s certainly still on the Christmas card lists of Aerosmith and Madonna.) For their six minute-plus “Sowing the Seeds of Love”, the band enlisted Jim Blashfield to assemble a video as grandiose as the song, and he succeeded. Dressed in a loud shirt and wearing his hair in vintage late ‘80s post-modern style (big, big bangs), Orzabal is surrounded by flying cellos, spinning Buddhas, and a phalanx of Ankhs. What’s remarkable about the video is the near absence of edits. Where videos today have about a hundred cuts a minute, “Sowing the Seeds of Love” flows like one of those Julian Temple videos that are designed to look like one long shot (think Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You”). To do that with a six-minute song would be unthinkable today, which makes the video even more refreshing in retrospect.


20th Century Masters may contain the videos of Tears for Fears’ biggest chart hits, but that’s hardly the point. The fans of the band were fans of music video, and to cut out such worthy tracks as “Pale Shelter”, “Change” (their big MTV breakthrough), and “Woman in Chains” is a gross disservice, especially when anyone who ponies up the money for this collection would gladly have spent an extra eight bucks for the rest of their videos. Eventually, there will no doubt be a “Very Best of” video compilation, which means this DVD will soon be landfill, just like The Simpsons prophesied. True Tears For Fears fans can only hope it happens sooner than later.

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Before they ruled the world, Tears for Fears created probably the second most important album ever to be inspired by the psychologist Arthur Janov. John Lennon isn't bad company, you know.
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Tears for Fears don't get much respect. Even in the wake of Donnie Darko, they're mostly considered an afterthought in pop history. Yet, in an era that favors stripped-down, no-fi production, the sheer majesty of Tears for Fears' sound is surprisingly refreshing.
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Just about worth the purchase price for its single new track, Gold is the best summary thus far of Tears for Fears' 25 years.
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