February 15, 2013

Friday Review: 9012Live

In honor of the release of Side Effects (which is pretty good, for what it is), acclaimed writer/director Steven Soderbergh is retiring from the biz. Given that milestone, I thought it was a good time to take a look back at where it all began for Soderbergh. You might think of Sex, Lies, and Videotape (which is also pretty good), and while that was his big breakthrough, it wasn’t his first cinematic rodeo. Rather, Soderbergh’s first gig was a small project for a group of aging English rockers struggling to stay relevant in the early 1980s.

Said rockers at the time were Yes, although they weren’t originally supposed to be. Cinema had coalesced around ex-Yesmen Alan White and Chris Squire, along with South African guitarist Trevor Rabin. Demos lingered and eventually fellow Yesman/garden gnome Jon Anderson came into the fold. The band got renamed (much in the same was as their contemporaries, Discipline, morphed back into King Crimson), added another Yes alum in Tony Kaye, and released a new album. To the surprise of many, it was a hit.

90125 (named after the catalog number from the record company) was produced by another ex-Yesman, Trevor Horn, and veritably screamed out its modernity. From its sound to its oh-so-early-80s digital artwork (made “utilizing Apple IIe 64K RAM Micro-computer”!).

I doubt any Yesfans will claim 90125 is their best work, but it’s not their worst, either. As an attempt to reshape their sound for the new decade, it came out at sort of the midpoint of similar efforts from the band’s 70s colleagues (nowhere near the aforementioned Discipline, not quite as good as Signals or Grace Under Pressure, but better than the self-titled Genesis and Civilian). And it did produce the band’s biggest hit, “Owner of Lonely Heart.” Once the tour started it must have seemed as good a time as any to make a similarly modern concert film.

Enter Soderbergh, fresh out of film school. Rather than follow the footsteps of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and go for a “you are there on stage” effect, Soderbergh went completely the opposite direction, mixing concert footage with outtakes from 1950s educational films (at least one of which eventually made its way to Mystery Science Theater 3000). Some are given day-glow colorization that bounces off the very 80s look of the band on stage.

Does the effect work? Certainly lots of people are put off by all the cross cutting. It is a concert film, after all, so what’s up with the extraneous shit? But it’s also what makes 9012Live unique. Nothing else I’ve ever seen looks quite like it. Besides, since that’s how I first saw it lo many years ago on MTV so maybe my brain’s hardwired to expect it. However, if you’re one of those people who can’t stand the non-concert stuff be consoled by the fact that in its current DVD version you can watch only the concert itself, without any extra visual stimuli.

Well, not the entire concert. Only a little over an hour was released, relying heavily on tracks from 90125, plus a couple old favorites from The Yes Album (“Roundabout” appears as a bonus track on the DVD). The band’s in pretty good shape and most of the album material is better here than in the studio. The old stuff even comes off well, with more muscular takes on the tracks than the band trotted out on tour during most of the 70s. No, Rabin is not Steve Howe, but he knows that and plays his own way. Give the man credit for hewing to his own skill set.

As it happened, the careers of Soderbergh and the band he chronicled have gone in opposite directions since 9012Live. Soderbergh, of course, went on to great critical acclaim as one of the most prolific directors of our time (seriously, he’s made 29 feature-length movies since!). Yes never hit the commercial heights of 90125 again and this variant of the band dissolved in 1994. They’ve done good work musically since, although they’ve recently sunk to nearly parodic levels of lineup changes and being the headliner on a prog-themed cruise.

Soderbergh’s retirement may not be permanent, but if it is he can at least be assured of going out while on top of his game. That might be a good lesson to learn for other aging artsy types.

The Details
Released 1985
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Featuring Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Alan White, and Tony Kaye (plus another keyboard player under the stage, IIRC)

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