Blue Man Group: The Complex Rock Tour Live [DVD]

Patrick Schabe

It's a great concept: a rock concert that is layered in such a way as to act as a meta-commentary about rock concerts.

Blue Man Group

The Complex Rock Tour Live [DVD]

Label: Atlantic
US Release Date: 2003-11-25

It's a great concept: a rock concert that is layered in such a way as to act as a meta-commentary about rock concerts. Of course, it's an idea that would come off as painfully pretentious from an actual rock band. Fortunately, this idea is being carried out here by none other than the Blue Man Group, the infamously commercially successful performance group that has already made a name for itself around the world for its high-concept commentary on sound, music, and culture.

After wowing audiences for years with their stage show, incorporating sound, light, and theater effects into a dynamic performance spectacle, as well as increasing their name recognition through a series of high-profile television ads for Intel, the Blue Man Group solidified its reputation in 1999 when its album Audio was nominated for the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental album. Now, with four permanent theater locations in New York, Boston, Chicago, and the recently installed BMG-dedicated theater in Las Vegas's Luxor Casino, the Blue Man Group has cemented its place in the performance world.

But when it came time to follow-up the success of Audio with a new album, the Blue Man Group decided to expand beyond theater into the realm of rock music. 2003's The Complex is more of a standard rock album than an auditory exploration in sound dynamics, and to enhance this new direction the BMG invited guest musicians to add a professional voice to the mute, mime-like figures of the Blue Men, including Dave Matthews, Gavin Rossdale, Tracy Bonham, and the band Venus Hum. Of course, a rock album normally demands a rock tour of rock concerts, and a three-man stage show of silent performers doesn't make for an ideal situation to fulfill these demands.

The solution arrived at more than does justice to the Blue Man Group aesthetic while still satisfying rock concert parameters. Instead of playing it minimally, the Blue Man Group made their traveling concert show an enormous production. Yes, the show is led by the usual three-man team of inquisitive, android-like men with blue painted heads, but they're backed up by a powerful and large stage band that includes two guitarists, a bassist, a keyboardist / vocalist, a kit drummer, and three percussionists. It's an enormous complement of musicians that manages to inject a grandiose amount of rock performance into the BMG show and simultaneously highlight the musical chops of The Complex.

Through a series of interplays with cameras projected onto a giant screen and interactions with the backing band, then Blue Men set the groundwork for their performance. But it's the voiced-over computer program that purports to be a Rock Concert Kit with a template for putting on a concert that gives the show its level of meta-commentary. The program guides the Blue Men and the audience through a series of basic "rock concert movements", including fist pumping, head bobbing, and pogo-style jumping. The program also guides the Blue Men in how to interact with the audience, as well as adding commentary to the effect that the stage performance of a rock concert is more important than the musical performance thanks to masking and pre-programming technologies. It's a funny technique for the audience, which gets to enjoy the Blue Men's reaction to the programs instructions even as it exposes the unspoken truths of a rock performance in the directly confrontational Blue Man Group style.

Of course, the whole show is filled with BMG particularities, including the ubiquitous PVC-piping organs, using whipping plastic rods to approximate record scratching, and banging on the exposed strings of an upturned baby grand piano. The stage and video screen are a lighting spectacle, and the screen displays images from on-stage video cameras, computer animated clips to match the themes of The Complex, and straight video projection of BMG's clip for "Exhibit 13". One of the most technically engaging moments comes during the performance of "The Current", in which the monitor shows the stick figure glyph from The Complex story-arc descending into the sewers. The stage then goes black and green laser-outlines of those stick figures "perform" the song. It's a brilliant moment that shows the Blue Man Group fully understands the visual relationship to music.

I had the opportunity to see The Complex Rock Tour when it came to Denver in October 2003. It was the first time I'd seen the Blue Man Group live, and I found the show to be a stunning collision of BMG's stage show, a rockin' meta-concert, and an exploration of The Complex's themes of alienation and escape in a machine-like world of bureaucracy. Basically, I was blown away, and it was one of the most engaging concerts I'd seen in a long time.

This DVD is hard to judge with that experience under my belt. It's a great document of the show, and it displays it in such a way that it's an enjoyable experience from a living room couch. But it also shifts perspective from the fixed position of an audience member to that of a roving eye. These multiple perspectives take away from the feeling of direct engagement. In part this is necessary because so much is going on on-stage, and also because it would be less enjoyable to watch for a home-viewer if it were a single view from a stationary camera. We don't expect TV and video to work that way. But it doesn't quite feel like being there, either.

Most concerts fall into the "You had to be there" category, so expecting more from this one is folly. A DVD might capture a show at its best, but it can't replace the unmediated experience. If you like Blue Man Group but were unable to see The Complex Rock Tour yourself, then this DVD will be a wonderful excursion into the show. If you did see it live, you might find yourself cherishing your memories a bit more. Not even "Time to Start" has quite the same feel as hearing it live. But the DVD also offers a great graphic interface that explores a variety of avenues on The Complex, including the original music videos for "Sing Along" with Dave Matthews, "The Current" with Gavin Rossdale, and "Exhibit 13". There is also a bonus disc that includes three tracks ("Above", "Your Attention", and "Sing Along") from the upcoming 5.1 Surround Sound edition of The Complex album.

While the concept remains brilliant on the small screen, it just can't capture the experience that the Blue Man Group made out of the live on-stage concert. You miss the added bonus of Tracy Bonham and Venus Hum's opening performances (although they do appear with the Blue Men to perform their contributions to The Complex), you miss the competing scrolling LCD screens that flanked the left and right sides of the stage before the show began, and you miss the slightly overwhelming power of the show. But it's nonetheless an enjoyable viewing experience, and it serves as a testament that the Blue Man Group's The Complex Rock Tour was one of the best ideas and best-executed concerts in ages.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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