Reviews

Jann Arden: A Work in Progress [DVD]

A Work in Progress reveals the good person that Jann Arden is, but not enough of the good musician that she is.


Jann Arden

A Work in Progress

US Release Date: 2006-11-15
Amazon
iTunes
"Nobody knows me, no one will ever see

The distance between what is and what will never be.

A bird will break his wings like a heart will cut her strings,

and there isn't anything to comfort me."

-- Jann Arden, "Gasoline" (1994)

"All of this, was wonderful and worth the heartache.

All of this, was beautiful and full of light.

All of this, was everything I ever hoped for.

All of this, was life."

-- Jann Arden, "All of This" (2005)

It's an unexpectedly rare moment in A Work in Progess when Jann Arden, superstar Canadian singer-songwriter barely known anywhere else in the universe, lets her guard down. Responding to her repeated failure at "cracking" the American pop market, Jann says:

I'm so happy to be kind of on the verge all the time. I think I always will be. But am I in an industry that doesn't allow someone like me to get to that point, or is it just me that doesn't?

It's one of the few times in the documentary that the Arden from visceral, crushing, is-it-me songs like "Gasoline" and "Hangin' By a Thread" shows up, the Arden who composes her music as though she's scratching at it from the inside of her skin with a chipped fingernail. Without this moment, the onscreen Arden comes across as carefree and full of life, she appears happy -- the kind of happy that doesn't require a question mark. It's a good image of the singer, and while at first appears unattached to the songwriter Arden, eventually the connection arrives. After all, the kind of woman who writes "Leave Me Now", "Unloved", and "Never Give Up on Me" without a sense of humor to buoy her would be sad and scary.

A Work in Progress is an open door to Arden's history. Part of the Canadian biography series, Life and Times, the hour-long show is Arden's opportunity to reflect. She talks about her strict father, her imprisoned brother, her struggles with self-image, and the years of alcohol abuse and one-night stands that almost ruined her -- and that was all pre-fame. Her scathing sense of humor remains throughout much of these discussions, with Arden hinting at seriousness and revelation briefly before softening any big emotional blows with a gag. She appears to dismiss the more awful parts of her life with this humor, which isn't to say her bad times are meaningless, but that they don't make up the woman entirely. She doesn't apologize for her past, she simply lets us know she's come to terms with it, and if she can't laugh, well, what other options are there?

An example of her willingness to poke fun at herself comes after Arden comments on her apparent resemblance to Monica Lewinsky:

I would have slept with the president. I would have done that, too. Are you kidding? I slept with a guy called Rocky in the Yukon for some onion rings.

There's always the joke. Arden lampoons her weight ("I got a boob caught in the blender, I thought it was heartburn"), her Canada-centric career ("I might have a hit in Canada ... or Afghanistan"), even her single status by openly and self-deprecatingly flirting with a fellow golfer at a celebrity pro-am, and while this creates a sense of fun about Arden, it becomes a real insight into the woman behind the music. There's a genuine shyness on display, and while Arden admits she's the first to announce her arrival in any room to "let everybody know you're there, and get it over with", she would appear, too, to be the first to willingly mock herself -- just in case you thought of doing it before her.

There arrives, then, this complex, captivating woman, who went from announcing herself in bars, clubs, and strange hotel rooms, to doing so at the Juno Awards, the Geminis, and on stage performing in The Vagina Monologues. Fame, though, appears to . . . if not come naturally . . . then at least it doesn't particularly faze Arden, who only encountered it after age 30. We get a great sense of the down-to-earth about Arden, particularly when we meet her family; dad makes trinkets in his shed, mum cooks cabbage rolls in the kitchen, and the family dogs spend afternoons chasing golf balls around a forest-like yard complete with pet cemetery and old-timey bicycles. Arden herself comments on the scene's grounding effect: "[What I do] seems really trite and insignificant when I come back here."

She completes that thought at the documentary's close when she notes: "I don't want to be remembered as a good singer, or a good songwriter. I want to be remembered by my family as a good person." A Work in Progress reveals that good person.

Tragically, though, the DVD would appear to want the very same. Fascinating a portrait as this is of Jann Arden the woman, the performer/songwriter bit is available to us only in fits and starts. The show features too-short dribs and drabs of Arden's songs, with only "Good Mother" getting any kind of stand out, as it serves perfectly as backdrop to the Arden family photo album flashed across the screen. Otherwise, we're given the tiniest of tastes of perhaps the classiest, sexiest, smartest voice in music. Even the DVD holds back on presenting Arden the artist with zilch in the way of extras. No videos, no live performances, no outtakes or further scenes from the Life and Times show: a tremendous disappointment.

A few extras might have added much-needed relevance to the release, as the show is eight years old, and the Jann Arden who describes her weight as "every pound earned, bought and paid for" is, in 2007, a brand new woman at 60-pounds lighter. Essentially, then, this is a reminder of the Arden of yore. The new Arden, with the hot body (displayed in December's Chatelaine magazine), and a covers album just out (featuring a magical version of Janis Ian's "At Seventeen") could very well be the work in progress nearing completion.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.