I had never sampled the "Under Review" DVD series before, and so was shocked and ashamed to discover that what I thought was likely a low-rent cash-in turned out to be a rather incisive and detailed examination of a rock album in its entirety. If the series can be judged by this most recent entry, its study of The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead, then I have to go out and beef up my collection with other releases under this banner that match my musical tastes.
Essentially, this is the story of the making of the Smiths 1986 album, The Queen is Dead, which many see as the magnum opus of the independent English band's career. It covers all of its basis, setting up the context of where the group was at in their artistic and commercial trajectory leading up to starting the album, following it through recording and release, and then charting the reaction. For those who already know the timeline, Under Review starts with the non-album single "Shakespeare's Sister" and then ends with the post-Queen non-album single "Panic," thus acknowledging the band's unique habit of recording 45s that had no album to promote, that were just special songs keeping a steady stream of music flowing out of the Smiths camp.
Within this larger story, The Queen is Dead is dissected track by track and from many different angles. Producer Stephen Street talks about what was done in the studio, while Guitar Magazine writer Gavin Hopps explains the various techniques the Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr used to construct his songs and scholars and critics from a variety of backgrounds pour over the impact of Morrissey's lyrics. Amidst this, we get snippets of the songs as well as footage from live performances and videos. Most fascinating, too, are the clips of other bands that influenced the writing of The Queen is Dead. So, if Hopps spots a Velvet Underground or Rolling Stones reference in a track, we hear the VU or Stones song Marr is riffing on, or if Street mentions seeking an MC5 vibe, we see some footage of the MC5. From a lyrical standpoint, similar references can be found in Morrissey's writing, but instead of old pop songs, he was borrowing from 1960s British film, particularly of the "Kitchen Sink" school. Thus, we get clips from Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and most importantly, The L-Shaped Room, which provided The Queen is Dead with its "Take Me Back to Dear Ol' Blighty" intro.
Though none of the actual Smiths participated in the making of the film, we do hear from them via older interviews. We also hear from Craig Gannon, a temporary back-up guitarist hired by the band during the Queen era, and who recorded original Smiths-like music for the DVD; Grant Showbiz, the band's road manager; John Porter, another of the Smiths' regular producers; and the infamous Tony Wilson, leader of Factory Records and musical benefactor of many Manchester, England bands (himself the subject of the film 24-Hour Party People). These various commentators create a sense of the bigger picture of British indie and why the Smiths were so vital, and why this album in particular delivered on their early promise. The greater influence is also represented by Brett Anderson, former lead singer of Suede and the Tears and now a solo artist. In my mind, Suede was the natural heir to the Smiths torch, and to hear Anderson's thoughts on the music was a real treat.
If there is any criticism to be leveled at The Smiths - The Queen is Dead: Album Under Review, it's that it may be a little too insider for a casual viewer. While 50% of the documentary focuses on the larger question of whom the Smiths were and what they have done, the other 50% sifts through the minutia of songs that fans know backward and forward. If they are new to you, though, some of the finer details may not seem so interesting. In that sense, buyer beware, you may not want to jump in with both feet if you are amongst the uninitiated (and if that is you, then go out and get initiated, the albums are in print). If you love the Smiths like I do, however, this DVD is calling your name.
The Smiths - The Queen is Dead: Album Under Review is a direct-to-DVD release, framed at a 4:3 fullscreen aspect ratio. The overall quality of the picture is very good, even most of the older clips looked cleaned up or culled from quality sources. You should find very little to kvetch about in regards to this all-region disc.
A basic stereo mix is passable. The film is almost entirely talking heads, so there is not much one should really expect as far as effects. The audio is always clear, and the interviewees easy to understand.
There are several bonus features: an extended 11-minute section with Stephen Street discussing what it was like to work with the band in the studio; a "Queen is Dead Interactive Challenge" game (what the--?! I only got 17 out of 25!); text-based biographies of the panelists; and a one-screen ad for other Smiths and Morrissey releases from the same company that released this disc.
The Smiths - The Queen is Dead: Album Under Review is packaged in a standard DVD case with a flimsy paper slipcover.
Without a doubt, if you're a Smiths enthusiast, The Smiths - The Queen is Dead: Album Under Review is an essential study of what is likely one of your all-time favorite albums. No stone is left unturned, and much of the analysis is fresh and revealing. The music is well represented, and there is a fair balance between fact and criticism. That said, that balance may leave those who aren't up to speed on the Smiths legacy in the dust, and based on that, I will dial down my rating a smidgen and say that, overall, The Smiths - The Queen is Dead: Album Under Review is Recommended. Might I suggest you pick up The Queen is Dead first, or my personal favorite album, the Louder than Bombs compilation, and make your way back to this once you've got the background sorted?
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle 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 comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.