BARENAKED IN AMERICANR
The best documentaries about rock 'n' roll (or, as they are affectionately termed, 'rockumentaries') are those that place their subject, be it a concert (Woodstock) or a band (The Last Waltz), in a larger social context. D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back is not as much a chronicle of Bob Dylan's 1965 European tour as it is a depiction of a musician coming to grips with sudden fame. Likewise, the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter (possibly the best rockumentary ever made) is more a requiem for the hippie movement than it is a profile of The Rolling Stones. Occasionally, Barenaked in America, which stars the popular Canadian group Barenaked Ladies, flirts with similarly deep themes, but director Jason Priestley (yes, the guy from 'Beverly Hills 90210') keeps pulling back, as if he is reluctant, or unable, to make anything more than a home movie about his favorite band.
This is a shame, because the story behind the group contains fertile material for a more investigative documentary. Formed in 1988, Barenaked Ladies was initially a novelty band that specialized in silly (but catchy) pop tunes with titles like 'Be My Yoko Ono.' Their oddball personalities and music made them a huge hit with Canadian audiences (who, as the recent South Park movie proved, have always had a better sense of humor than Americans), but they couldn't get themselves arrested on this side of the border.
Flash-forward to 1998, when the band's latest album, 'Stunt,' fueled by the infectious single 'One Week,' topped the charts in Canada and the United States. Almost overnight, the group was catapulted to rock-star status and commenced upon the sold-out U.S. tour chronicled in Barenaked in America.
Although never explicitly stated in the documentary, looking at footage of Barenaked Ladies before and after it entered the mainstream, it is clear that the band underwent several changes to be more in tune with American tastes. Gone are the wild hairdos and colorful outfits the musicians' sported in their Canadian days, replaced by more traditional buzz-cuts and low-key jeans-and-t-shirt combinations. Who instigated these changes? Why were they necessary to insure the band's success in America? How did their new look affect their music? These are all interesting questions, but Priestley stubbornly refuses to explore any of them. Whenever a potentially revealing moment does arise, the director cuts away to yet another scene of the guys sitting around cracking wise.
Typically, the concert footage is what saves even the worst rockumentaries, but Priestley proves himself equally incompetent at shooting the band's performances. (Amazingly, he only filmed one concert out of the entire tour.) Angles don't match, the dolly shots wobble, and worst of all, the five or six camera crews shooting the show are in plain sight of one another all the time. Nothing ruins a filmed concert like repeatedly seeing a cameraman dash across the stage.
So, is there any reason to seek this movie out? Yes. If you are as much a Ladies fan as Priestley obviously is, you'll have a grand old time seeing the guys interact onstage and off. Even the uninitiated will be entertained by the band's antics, if not necessarily their music. But for the discerning rock fan and/or filmgoer, Barenaked in America is about as insightful as an MTV promotional video.