Sting: Bring on the Night [DVD]

[21 June 2005]

By Will Layman

At the start of this 1985 documentary directed by Michael Apted, Mr. Gordon Sumner chides a Parisian journalist, “Everyone calls me Sting—even my wife and mother.” He then explains that he wants to make this film so he can document the birth of a band, rather than a band’s peak or ending.

Well, I’m not sure that either of those statements is true. I think Der Schtingle’s mum calls him Gordon. And I think Mr. Sumner wanted this picture made so he could market his new music while looking as good and sensitive as he could for his audience. The truth is, the film does document the beginning of a band, though this is really not a “band” in the collective sense—it’s a group of musicians backing up Sting and making him sound unusually fine. But it shows its audience, in some detail, how a rock band rehearses and arranges songs, and it shows the sense of humor and ease that musicians need when working together closely. The film makes Sting’s music sound great, and it makes Sting look damn handsome, but it does not make him look good in the larger sense. Which is to say, director Michael Apted succeeded marvelously at finding the truth.

Sting had just disbanded The Police, and this project (which would result in his first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles) was announced as some kind of “jazz experiment”. Of course, it was nothing of the kind, exactly. Sting had, rather, recruited a handful of top jazz players—Branford Marsalis (saxophone), Kenny Kirkland (piano), Daryl Jones (bass) and Omar Hakim (drums)—to give his new songs a lush harmonic treatment and a whole lot of fiery solos. In Take Back the Night, we meet the band as it rehearses for its first concert in some kind of old castle/estate outside of Paris. Along the way, we meet not only the band but also Sting’s tell-it-like-it-is manager Miles Copeland, the ethereally beautiful and nine-months-pregnant Mrs. Sting, and each of Sting’s chiseled facial features.

The two stars of the movie are Copeland and Marsalis. Copeland is straight out of This Is Spinal Tap. He is the business-first guy, and one of the film’s best moments comes when he is arguing with the woman who designed the costumes for the band’s first concert—grey and tan outfits that essentially disappear against the grey set. Copeland puts it bluntly: “Well, I’m sorry—I’m just a peasant, man, but they look boring”. He is, of course, a total asshole, but he is right. He’s not afraid to look bad, because he’s actually being honest with the camera. His other great moment is spoken directly to the lens as he explains why Sting will be paid handsomely for these gigs while the infinitely more musically skilled jazz musicians will get paid crap. “We’ve got Madison Square Garden sold out. Now, if you cancel the show, how many people are going to give their tickets back? No one! If Sting cancels, how many? Every one of ‘em!”

Mr. Marsalis is equally honest and acts as Copeland’s counter-weight. Branford has played with folks like Art Blakey and, while he likes Sting’s songs, the “rock star” does not intimidate him. He mocks “Gordon” by reciting a tabloid article about Sting’s rise from “son of a dairy farmer to millionaire superstar”. Branford plays through all the music, in rehearsal or in concert, with a gleeful release, making everything sound much better because what he plays is so utterly uncalculated. When Mrs. Nine-Months-Pregnant Sting tells him to “break a leg” before the concert, he shoots back, “Break your water”. When the interviewer asks him whether he is nervous about the band’s first concert, his reply is the film’s best moment: “If I was Sting, I might be nervous. But I’m not Sting—I play jazz. I know what it’s like to be shat on. I am a jazz musician. I know what it’s like to play some stuff that nobody wants to hear.” Marsalis, who seems not to care about the rock star trappings at all, comes at the camera like the last good guy in all of France.

And then there’s Sting himself. The puckish lead singer for The Police is still there when he smiles mischievously, but the full pretense of Solo Career Sting is emerging. He slags the rest of the record industry as racist and says that this band, “because of its racial make-up” will challenge the status quo. The band, including the two background singers, is made of six African-Americans and Sting, bossing then all around as he teaches them his songs—it’s not exactly racial utopia. Worse, though, are the interviews with Sting in his fancy clothes, talking self-seriously about his art and his background—about how his teaching career was dull because he could already see that he would eventually become headmaster of his school and he just preferred to become filthy rich as a rock star. When did he know that he had really made it? When he heard a window cleaner outside his hotel room whistling “Roxanne”. Wow, Sting.

But the ‘Sting as Awesome Man’ portion of the film reaches its climax as the camera follows Sting and his wife to the hospital during the birth of their second child, Jake. Sting looks fabulous in scrubs, gently rubbing his wife’s forehead during labor, then stoically cutting the umbilical cord as his newborn son rests on Trudy’s chest. This sequence is accompanied by “Russians”, Sting’s classically under girded tune about nuclear proliferation: “I hope the Russians love their children too”. You want to excuse Sting his self-aggrandizing earnestness, but you know how his career is going to wind up, so you really can’t.

But wait. The music.

The music is terrific. When Sting is just rehearsing the band, working out harmony parts or letting his superhuman musicians ride over the chords, all things are right in the world. The singers are correct—the tunes are really good, with stories to tell and great melodies—and Sting’s instinct for arrangement and showmanship guides the performances toward elegant ecstasy. Of course, the film moves toward the concert, and when it finally begins (with more colorful costumes in place, you note), things feel great. Omar Hakim is perched high on the stage, and his swings the band like Buddy Rich with a backbeat habit while Daryl Jones percolates the funk. “Shadows in the Rain”, the opener, gives Sting an excuse to sing dirty and down, but when Kenny Kirkland takes the first solo on his Yamaha DX-7, judiciously bending notes and letting his fingers rip, the music is in full flight. You sense the audience’s reluctance to like these songs they’ve never heard before, but—and you can feel this through your TV screen—the band is winning them over. Then, when Sting and Branford duet on “Roxanne” you feel that equal release of the familiar. It was a great Police tune, and Branford—not caring whether he’s shat on or not—makes it that much better.

Watching Bring on the Night 20 years later, we know that Sting is bound to produce music with an increasingly soft underbelly. We know that catchy tunes like “Fields of Gold” are going to become MOR hits that we’ll hear too much of in supermarkets. But Dream of the Blue Turtles was a terrific set of songs—a bit over-serious in spots, sure, but an amazing success, particularly given that Sting was leaving a super-successful rock band. This concert, and all the rehearsals that precede it, make for compelling music—and hearing the songs in somewhat raggedy rehearsal makes you realize what fine tunes they are.

Bring on the Night launched Sting’s solo career and Branford Marsalis’s movie career (he was pretty hilarious in Throw Momma from the Train). One has been too long, the other much too short. Today Branford is still making great music that no one wants to hear, while Sting can now buy all the French chateaus that his heart desires. Call it peculiar justice, call it the marketplace—this movie is not a bad lesson in both.

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