DVD REVIEW: ‘Spectacle Elvis Costello with…’ Season Two

Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello perform on 'Spectacle' — Photo courtesy of MVD

Elvis Costello’s unusually entertaining television show known clunkily as Spectacle Elvis Costello with… was a strange beast when it aired on the Sundance Channel a few years ago. It coupled interviews and musical performances from some of the best in the business. Costello would take the stage with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Bono and The Edge, Sheryl Crow and Bill Clinton. There didn’t seem to be too many people he couldn’t get to sit down.

Often, the resulting episode proved interesting, if not fascinating. The musical performances were always much better received than Costello’s interviewing skills. For music purists who can’t take the electronic warbling blaring through the radio, Spectacle was a safe haven of raw artistry with few frills. Think of it as an updated version of The Dick Cavett Show, with less talk and more music.

Recently, season two of the series was released on an expansive two-disc set featuring all of the segments that appeared on television, plus a behind-the-scenes documentary and three bonus songs, including a colloboration with Costello, Bono and The Edge on U2’s “Dirty Day” and Costello’s own “Alison.”

Each episode usually starts with a bang. Costello takes the stage with his band and amps it up right away. On the Bono/The Edge episode, he breaks into a rousing rendition of “Mysterious Ways” that instantly sets the mood. This is not going to be a Diane Sawyer interview. Costello is interested in resurrecting the spirit behind the songs and finding their inspiration from the performers. Although the evening is largely off the grid, each performer’s songbook serves as a trusty guide.

In theory, the rubric works. The television show bills itself as one musical legend talking to other musical legends, and that, of course, occurs.

But Spectacle is still unable to elevate the interview segments to anything more than taped conversations that serve no real purpose except to introduce the next song. Yes, the performers reminisce about past gigs and how they broke into the business, but fans of the musicians will have heard all the stories before. Annoyingly, Costello and his guests talk a lot of inside baseball, which may seem like the audience is getting to hear some captivating revelations, but the tidbits simply come off as gloating. Look at those celebrities up there! Look how they talk about life and art!

It’s admittedly a difficult balance to strike. How does one talk about the art form without sounding conceited? Costello, with that iconic smile and fast-paced conversational tone, tries to keep everything light. Depth is missing, but humor is present. It’s probably the best he could do with a show that is as much about the host as it is about the guest.

When the talking ends and the music begins, Spectacle takes off. It’s a pleasure to witness Allen Toussaint in action with Levon Helm, Richard Thompson and Nick Lowe. John Prine and Lyle Lovett offer nice additions, and the Springsteen segment proves to be the best of the bunch. Definitely check out “She’s the One,” “Radio Silence” and “Pretty Woman.”

If you find yourself “Watching the Detectives” more than once a week, drink some of this Kool-Aid. If you didn’t get that joke, best to steer clear.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Spectacle Elvis Costello with…

  • Season Two (two discs)

  • 2011

  • Featuring Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, The Edge, Sheryl Crow, Ron Sexsmith, Neko Case, Jesse Winchester, Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson, Nick Lowe, Levon Helm, Mary-Louise Parker, Lyle Lovett, John Prine and Ray LaMontagne

  • Running time: 350 minutes

  • Rating: ★★½☆

  • DVD special features: Behind-the-scenes documentary with co-executive producer David Furnish, plus three bonus songs (U2’s “Dirty Day,” Costello’s “Alison” and Costello’s “I Want You”)

  • Click here to purchase Spectacle Elvis Costello with… on DVD.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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