Filmmaker Rob Nilsson gives himself equal billing with John Cale and Brian Eno in the cinéma vérité documentary-cum-melodrama Words for the Dying.
Nilsson was hired by record label Opal/Warner Bros. to document the making of Cale's 1989 album Words for the Dying. Instead of filming a traditional "making of" documentary, Nilsson used the occasion to document his clash of egos with producer Brian Eno, and to explore the use of documentary for personal melodrama more generally.
Brian Eno and Rob Nilsson
On the eve of recording Words for the Dying, Cale's musical career was at it lowest point. Following the break-up of the Velvet Underground, Cale had achieved critical success for collaborations with Nick Drake, Patti Smith, Brian Eno and others, and for his solo work culminating in the 1982 release of Music for a New Society which was hailed as a minimalist masterpiece. Following Music for a New Society though, Cale seemed to stumble, releasing poorly received albums in 1983 and 1984, and then the disastrous pop album Artificial Intelligence in 1985.
After a four-year hiatus from recording, Words for the Dying was intended as Cale's come-back album. The centerpiece of the album is "The Falklands Suite", a set of pieces for boys choir and orchestral accompaniment over which Cale reads in sing-song poems by Dylan Thomas. Cale's label hired avant-garde musician Brian Eno to produce the album, and booked studio time in Wales with a boys choir, and in Moscow with a studio orchestra that could be had cheap. Unbeknown to Eno, Opal/Warner Bros. also hired Rob Nilsson to document the making of the album.
Eno considered Nilsson's presence to be an unwelcome distraction. To appease the label however, Eno agreed to allow Nilsson to continue filming provided that he wasn't obtrusive. Nilsson considered Eno's terms to be too frustratingly circumscribed to allow him to make a proper "making of" documentary, and so he decided to refocus the documentary on Eno, Cale, and himself, relegating the making of the album to a supporting storyline.
Throughout, Nilsson uses the camera to prod Eno into strong reactions that serve his conflict narrative. Eno often seems happy to oblige, but on the occasions when he gets so engrossed in the music that he doesn't notice him, Nilsson petulantly pushes in with the camera demanding attention. The most egregious example of this comes when bass violin virtuoso Rodin's solo enchants Eno, and Nilsson's camera crowds in and circles Eno like a jealous lover.
When not focused on his ego clash with Eno, Nilsson also records some of the tourist sites around Moscow, tags along for introductions to Russian rock musicians and literary figures, and documents Cale selling his mother's house. The documentary wraps up with Nilsson trying to wring a bit more melodrama out by showing Cale a videotape of some Dutch filmmakers denigrating his recent work. Cale, visibly hurt, meekly accepts the criticism and then literally runs away down a hillside, leaving Nilsson with only a shot of his backside.
Words for the Dying is letterboxed with an apparent aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The documentary was shot in color and then rendered black and white in post production. As a consequence, contrast suffers significantly with some scenes having contrast set too low and others having it set too high. Had Nilsson intended to make a black and white film, he might have done better to use black and white film.
The weakest element on this release is the audio. While the source material sounds like it was recorded well enough, somewhere along the way, perhaps during the DVD transfer, the documentary picked up a low-volume, high-pitched intermittent whine. This noise fatally flaws this release.
Subtitles are not offered.
The extras include a 2008 interview with filmmaker Rob Nilsson about the making of Words for the Dying (25:47) which suffers from poor sound and image, a trailer for Nilsson's 9 @ Night series of films, and a seven-minute featurette on Direct Action Cinema, an outgrowth of Nilsson's actors workshop for which he claims the methods of John Cassavetes as a inspiration.
The final question Rob Nilsson asks Brian Eno on camera is this: "After all the battles you and I had, do you think there's any chance that this could turn out to be an interesting film in the end?" After a long pause, Eno responds "I don't really see how." Nilsson undoubtedly thought he'd proven Eno wrong, but I don't think he did.
Despite my personal reservations about Nilsson's hijacking of this making of documentary for his own ends, Words for the Dying might still have been worth renting for some fans of these men, or fans of documentary as contrived melodrama, but the intermittent audio whine precludes even this tepid recommendation.