Elvis Costello: Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters [DVD]

Elvis Costello

I yelled the first time I saw that Elvis Costello Lexus ad on television. Do you know the one I’m talking about? Our man sits in the back seat of the luxury sedan air-conducting a symphony like a teenage band geek. “What?” That’s all I could say: “What?” Then, it was back to my regularly scheduled program.

Since then, that commercial has weighed on my mind. I am typically into all things Elvis. His artistic curiosity spills over into my fandom, making me curious about Charles Mingus, Nick Lowe, Allen Toussaint. And the Brodsky Quartet. I am not interested, however, in owning a Lexus, no matter how good Elvis, his wife Diana Krall, or John Legend says the sound system is.

There are two camps: those who frown on artists or their songs appearing in commercials and those who don’t care. I’ve always been a little of both, with an emphasis more on the former than the latter. With the prevalence of musical of all kinds on TV these days — from the Who of CSI to the 5678’s of Vonnage — it suddenly seems as if it’s just something people do as part of the artistic process, which makes it hard for me to feel too angry about.

But with Elvis, it’s different. He seemed above all that. Not above charging $50+ for a concert ticket, but above a commercial. I tried to bite my tongue, but I felt violated, if only because he seemed to have no interest in being a spokesman for anything other than himself. Whatever the reason for his newfound interest in hucksterism is — he is the father of twin baby boys — at least “Pump It Up” isn’t hawking Reeboks.

Besides, as an artist who’s almost never taken the easy way to success (without failing; just listen to Goodbye Cruel World), who can blame the man? Releasing an album of music recorded with just his voice and a string quartet, hot on the heels of his best-selling stateside album (Spike), isn’t exactly a one-way ticket to the Top of the Pops. Yet that’s just what Elvis did, and with astonishing results.

As an album, The Juliet Letters is a mostly satisfying song cycle that takes the form of letters — suicide, “Dear John” — that loved ones write one another. The idea, as explained by Elvis and the Brodsky Quartet, came from a real life Veronese literature professor who took it upon himself to answer letters addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet. Each song represents a different form of letter, and each is filled with heartache, hope and humor. This DVD, an identical rerelease of a VHS from 1993, is a staged performance of the bulk of the album, interspersed throughout with interviews with Elvis and the Brodskys. The lone live performance, “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe”, is the film’s highlight, showcasing the dynamics of Elvis’ voice and the pop leanings of the Quartet. Here the group is emotionally unleashed, loose and comfortable.

The rest of the performances feature the singer and players standing in a bare room scattered with flower petals and adorned with the kind of solitary column one finds at Hobby Lobby. Though the songs are all quite nice, the performances do little to rise above their staged nature. This is the real let down of the set. Unlike the live performance, the lip-synced studio performances are watered down, softening the impact of the songs.

The performances, each designed to be a simple music video for the song, are all nearly the same, with only the lighting and the group’s attire (street clothes in one scene, formal wear in the next) changing. Each piece feels like an opportunity wasted. More could have been done to create a larger world for the songs, and their stories, to inhabit.

For his part, Elvis contorts his face into any number of grimaces and whimsical, wide-eyed smiles, but these only calls further attention to the artifice of the performance and, in general, makes him look silly. In fact, this comical emoting seems a likely candidate for the genesis of his “air conducting” seen in the aforementioned Lexus commercial. Here, he looks like he’s singing in front of the bathroom mirror.

The main draw here are the interviews with the performers. These illuminate the history of the project as well as the intensely collaborative nature of the work. Had the album been released today, these interviews would have likely appeared on a DVD accompanying the CD, a sort of primer for fans of either Elvis or the Brodskys who were unsure of what they were getting themselves into. As it is, this DVD is simply a stand alone work that offers an interesting, if nonessential, glimpse into the world of musical hybrids and unlikely collaboration. Casual fans need not apply — this is for hardcore devotees only. Even so, a complete lack of bonus features makes this purchase only for those looking for a digital upgrade of their old VHS tapes.

Watching this DVD, one can’t help but wonder how an artist of Elvis’ stature goes from completely disregarding the standard commercial demands of pop music to touting the benefits of a car on national television. Luxury cars are symbols of excess, though, and Elvis is no stranger to that. Still, artistic excess — a chameleon’s repertoire, a penchant for genre hopping and collaboration — doesn’t equal automotive excess, not matter how good the sound system.

In one of the DVD’s interviews, Elvis balks at the notion that he’s renounced the “cheap excitement” of rock and pop music. He claims to simply have moved on to something else. So perhaps now he’s moved on, as well. After years of pursuing collaborations with Burt Bachrach, Anne Sofie-Von Otter, the Jazz Passengers, the Mingus Big Band, Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet, maybe Elvis Costello has discovered a new field where it’s not just the grass that’s greener.

RATING 6 / 10