[27 July 2005]
“I never turned into a housewife because I managed to lose the fathers somewhere along the way.”
Midway through the “No Turn Left Unstoned” documentary, the off-screen interviewer who we never see and up to this point have never heard, asks Chrissie Hynde about her relationship with Ray Davies. “Who the fuck wants to know?” she spits back as the film drops into slo-mo. It’s a silly moment (What did she think all the cameras and sound equipment were for?) and calls attention to how scripted and composed the whole thing feels. Every word and every slanted angle (it employs a distracting and out-dated Real World visual style, with quick cuts, split screens, and shaky shots) seems built to sell us on the idea of the Pretenders as the arena band that you can still believe in as a club band, the corporate band that never sold-out and still has the “screw you” moxie. Which, of course they aren’t… completely. Instead of hanging out with speed heads in London, Hynde is now collaborating with high-priced song doctors and opening for the Rolling Stones. But that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, diminish the excitement and the windy rush that is such a part of her best songs.
But this isn’t a collection of songs, even if that’s how they’re referred to on the DVD’s menu. It’s a collection of videos, and few bear multiple viewings. Videos just don’t fit the best Pretenders songs; watching her lip sync to “Kid” or “Night in My Veins” or even the video for “Back on the Chain Gang”, which is actually quite good, boxes in songs that should be free to bounce all over your room (that being said, the audio on the DVD is superb). The earliest ones, mostly performance videos, are the best, with Chrissie still playing the matronly punk queen who is completely capable of cutting you open should the need arise. Martin Chambers couldn’t look like he belongs behind the drum set any less than he does in “Message of Love”, and seeing him play along to the record still gives no clues as to what went into the actual drum track. He’s happy, though, and that counts for a lot. And James Honeyman-Scott’s giddy expressions and equally giddy guitar lines are pure joy and speak volumes about how the band couldn’t help but become a completely different thing after his death. He’s maybe the most under-appreciated guitar players of the last 20 or so years. The footage of the original band really is pretty amazing.
In the later videos, the oft-reconstructed Pretenders just don’t look like a band, and too many directors get Chrissie wrong. Even “Brass in Pocket”, she admits, should have ended with her “flipping tables over.” Instead she watches from the window of the restaurant as her band drives off without her. In the video for “I’ll Stand By You”, a song written for her children, she tends to a drug-addled junkie who could have walked off of an Abercrombie and Fitch poster and onto the set. It’s hard to believe that she’d let things get that far. Though she’s always had a big heart (She did once write, “The reason we’re here / As man and woman / Is to love each other / Take care of each other”, after all), she’s never been anyone’s fool. In “Pop Star”, she takes out Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and Kylie Minogue. “You should have just stuck with me,” she sings, and makes you hate yourself for ever straying.
The DVD doesn’t skimp on the material, collecting 20 videos and the 45-minute documentary. Despite its transparency, “No Turn Left Unstoned” is easy to forgive, because it’s thorough and includes some great footage with Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe (hearing his seemingly casual but pointed pronunciation of “NME” is worth the price of the DVD alone), among others. It also includes clips from the original video for “2000 Miles” (which is excised from the video collection portion of the DVD in favor of the “Isle of View” version), which is so unfathomably bad that you’ll almost never be able to hear the song the same way again. Consider yourself warned.
Early on in the documentary Chrissie asks Bono, “How did you manage to become a rock star and I didn’t?” Bono’s response, “You’re a much better rock star than me,” is part false modesty and part dead-on. Without videos U2 would have probably never become what they are; they were made to be blown-up onto the big screen. The Pretenders, and maybe Chrissie specifically, didn’t translate nearly as well; the image that they cultivated wasn’t grand enough to make the leap. Still, I’ll take any of the Pretenders’ singles over anything by U2 again and again. And watching Pretenders videos will send you back to the CDs and albums, which stand better on their own. I don’t think the same can be said of U2. And while the Pretenders admittedly aren’t saving the world, in High Fidelity Nick Hornby suggested that some people might be able to extract the meaning of life from one of their chord changes. He was being facetious, but only sort of.