The Juliet Letters was a 1992 collaboration between rocker Elvis Costello and the esteemed Brodsky Quartet. A concept album of sorts, they composed classically based songs that made full use of the Brodsky strings with lyrics that were meant to represent love letters composed by various characters. It was a bit of a watershed album for Costello, whose career was starting to shift into the eclectic mix of styles that has since seen him move past poetic punk and become something more of a musical lexicon unto itself.
This DVD of a documentary created to promote the release of The Juliet Letters arrives with very little fanfare. A 52-minute program with no extras and a barely passable video transfer, from the way it's structured, I would guess it was some kind of electronic press kit from the time. Costello and the Brodsky Quartet perform songs from the record on a sound stage, lip-synching to the prerecorded versions. In between, they talk about the genesis of the project and the approach they took to creating the material. Even if it was created as promotional fluff, it's actually really good. The music is lovely, and the selections were chosen to showcase the varied moods of the album. There is a poppy, theatrical number and a sad number and even one where Costello adopts two poses, that of a cynical writer and of a fan who wrote him a letter. How bizarre to hear Elvis explain that the fan letter was written by a female soldier on the eve of the original Gulf War. It's too frighteningly apropos to our current state, with arch poses giving away to real emotion.
I love listening to Elvis Costello talk about music almost as much as I love hearing him perform it. I've been advancing a theory for some time now that he is to music what Martin Scorsese is to film: both are journeymen who constantly challenge themselves and are more than capable of succeeding at whatever material they tackle, and both are so knowledgeable about their chosen artistic profession, listening to them talk about the material that influenced them is like an advanced education from your favorite professor, who not only makes you feel smarter but gets you excited about discovering new sights and sounds. There is no better illustration of my theory than The Juliet Letters
The problem here is the canned pantomime of performances. It takes this program about an experiment in strings and voice (Elvis insists he is not fronting four other people but is instead the fifth instrument in a quintet) from being something that could have been very special and makes it kind of "eh." Insult to injury, they did actually perform this stuff live. The documentary intro is of Costello explaining the Juliet Letters concept onstage, and one of the songs in the show, "Jacksons, Monk and Rowe," was filmed with live audio at that concert. Why not use the whole thing instead of faking the funk?
This is little more than an extended commercial, and though I enjoyed the sales pitch, I'd have preferred something real and substantial to come with it.
The full song list:
For Other Eyes
Who Do You Think You Are?
I Almost Had a Weakness
Dear Sweet Filthy World
Jacksons, Monk and Rowe (live)
I Thought I'd Write to Juliet
The First to Leave
Taking My Life in Your Hands
The Birds Will Still be Singing
Note: The original album has twenty tracks, so this is an abbreviated version.
Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters has a non-anamorphic letterboxed picture. It looks to me like it was mastered from a VHS, because there is very soft resolution and a lot of surface noise. Fairly mediocre.
A basic stereo mix. Neither here nor there.
Rent It. I love Elvis Costello, and I love his excursions into non-rock territory, but Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters doesn't do this ambitious project justice. A re-release of an old electronic press kit with very little work done to spruce it up for DVD (if any at all) is far less than this excellent melding of traditional string quartet music and Costello's unique lyrical narratives deserves. Wasn't there archival material? More live footage? Something? Elvis Costello & the Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters feels like a supplemental item, not a main feature.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.