The concert film is a tricky proposition. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing – witness Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film “Stop Making Sense” – you’re essentially watching a concert without the experience of being there, live. There’s got to be something very intentional about the experience to draw the viewer in. Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live, re-released on Blu-Ray today, is such an immersive experience. But in part it’s the concert’s lack of contrivance that makes the difference. Read more after the jump!
The spectacle kicks off with heavily symbolic “Come Talk to Me”, with its desperate man-in-a-phone-booth evoking both the interpersonal disconnection of technology and Doctor Who’s TARDIS, a pop-culture representation of the gateway to adventure. And the spectacle stays firmly grounded in the practical. Vents of steam on cue with Peter Gabriel’s gestures during “Steam”, trap doors and descending domes turn the show into an illusionist’s studio.
But if the film is multi-sensory, then it’s still grounded in the music. Peter Gabriel’s music is amazing, and Secret World Live could arguably be said to represent him performing at the peak of his pop sensibility, synthesized effortlessly with diverse instrumentation and stylistic variation of world music. Gabriel’s biggest hits – “Steam”, “Sledge Hammer”, “Solsbury Hill” – are given authoritative, commanding presentations. Even without the inventive visuals of his trademark stop-motion and CG videos, the songs are overpowering. And the breathtaking reinterpretation of “In Your Eyes”, the closing encore, makes a strong case for becoming the definitive version of that song.
It never gets inaccessible. Everything stays singable, and danceable.
And that’s one thing that will strike a viewer new to this experience: the playfulness and accessibility – the universality – of the movement incorporated into the performance. Once we reach “Shaking the Tree”, the simple, easy-to-follow steps start to stir something primal and innocent in the audience. It’s not pop choreography. There’s something naive, joyful, and celebratory about how Gabriel and his performers move.
Attention must called to musical collaborator Paula Cole. This was her first major appearance – “Where have all the cowboys gone” and the Dawson-driven overexposure of “I Don’t Want To Wait” were still four years off – and she’s a powerful, fearless performer fully in sync with Gabriel and his musicians. There’s a conspiratorial tone to the proceedings: the connection between the performers, playing so diverse a range of instruments, from minimalist electric upright bass to traditional african percussion, almost feels like the audience is invited into the performance.
The launch event took place at Toronto’s ScotiaBank Theatre, in screening room 10, a smaller and slightly underequipped screening room in a larger cineplex. Consequently, the audience there may not have had the full multichannel mix of the Blu-Ray release on the theatre’s sound system. There were some perceptible visual compression artifacts: the darkness weren’t perfectly black, and a few patches visible in the background of the crowd. It was minor, and it may not affect the experience of the home viewer, but it is a reminder that the concert took place in 1993, and was using camera equipment of that time, in less-than-ideal lighting circumstances.
Seeing a concert film in a theatre is something of a middle ground between the rush of being at a live show, and the relaxed convenience of seeing it at home. But what you lose from a live show, you gain from the carefully chosen cinematography, capturing the performers from the perfect angles to see the production and planning. And if this is as close as I’m going to get to seeing this show in 1994, I’m glad I got a chance to enter this world.