Champagne & Reefer: Rolling Stones Shine a Light

Rolling Stones Shine a Light movie poster


Mar­tin Scorsese’s long his­to­ry with musi­cal doc­u­men­taries and con­cert films includes work­ing as assis­tant direc­tor and edi­tor on Wood­stock (1970), direct­ing an account of The Band’s final con­cert as The Last Waltz (1978), exec­u­tive pro­duc­ing and design­ing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s con­cert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), direct­ing part of the mas­sive The Blues tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary series (2003), and craft­ing the defin­i­tive Bob Dylan and George Har­ri­son doc­u­men­taries No Direc­tion Home (2005) and Liv­ing in the Mate­r­i­al World (2010).

Shine a Light is a lit­tle of all the above, but most­ly just a straight­for­ward con­cert film fea­tur­ing the Rolling Stones in a ben­e­fit con­cert thrown at New York City’s Bea­con The­ater in 2006. The Stones are joined by spe­cial guests Christi­na Aguil­era, Jack White, and Bud­dy “Moth­er­fuck­er” Guy (watch the DVD bonus fea­tures for the enter­tain­ing sto­ry behind that moniker). It was orig­i­nal­ly released in IMAX, and no doubt los­es some­thing in trans­la­tion from 50-foot the­aters screens to small tele­vi­sions. U2 did them one up by releas­ing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones in Shine a LightAre you sure you want to see these faces in 50-foot-high IMAX?

Like Gimme Shel­ter (1970), a doc­u­men­tary account of the fall­out fol­low­ing the killing of a fan at a Stones con­cert in Alta­mont, Shine a Light is some­times less than total­ly flat­ter­ing. Mick Jag­ger is seen to be so ruth­less­ly sin­gle-mind­ed that he will not deign to col­lab­o­rate with Scors­ese. Even when meet­ing no less than Bill Clin­ton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the light­ing will dis­tract from his per­for­mance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scors­ese or Clin­ton, so per­haps Jagger’s van­i­ty may be par­tial­ly excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new tech­nol­o­gy; wit­ness as Jag­ger strikes clas­sic pos­es for fans in the front row to cap­ture on their mobiles.

Keith Richards and Buddy Guy in The Rolling Stones Shine a LightKeef jams with Bud­dy “Moth­er­fuck­er” Guy

Scors­ese is famous­ly a fan, uti­liz­ing Rolling Stones tunes in his sound­tracks so often that Jag­ger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to fea­ture the song Gimme Shel­ter.” I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a sim­i­lar­ly casu­al lis­ten­er might learn of them based on Shine a Light:

  • Char­lie Watts, also a suc­cess­ful artist and jazz drum­mer out­side of the Stones machine, comes across as quite dis­tract­ed, almost to the extent of appear­ing senile (or maybe even more drug-addled than Kei­th Richards). He behaves the same in vin­tage inter­views scat­tered through­out Shine a Light, so per­haps it’s just his nat­ur­al demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
  • Mick Jag­ger still has the body of a pre­teen girl, albeit one with impres­sive­ly ripped arms.
  • Every­body knows the leg­endary Kei­th Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no busi­ness still walk­ing this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, see­ing as how he bare­ly notices a kiss from Christi­na Aguil­era. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the high­ly rehearsed motions of a typ­i­cal Stones spec­ta­cle. In a telling moment, the cam­era catch­es him alone, play­ing some moody blues licks to him­self as the rest of the band hob­nobs.
  • Ron­nie Wood comes across the best, remind­ing fans that although Kei­th Richards may have co-writ­ten many of the most pop­u­lar and endur­ing rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.

Scors­ese includes him­self as a char­ac­ter in his own film, appear­ing at least twice in a char­ac­ter­is­tic track­ing shot that caps the film: fol­low­ing the Stones off­stage and out of the the­ater, and fly­ing up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true doc­u­men­tary on the Stones to equal No Direc­tion Home and Liv­ing in the Mate­r­i­al World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most inter­est­ing celebri­ties.

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A Tall Tale: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock movie poster


Ang Lee’s Tak­ing Wood­stock is based on Elliot Tiber’s mem­oir Tak­ing Wood­stock: A True Sto­ry of a Riot, a Con­cert, and a Life, that pur­ports to be the untold sto­ry of how the Wood­stock music fes­ti­val came to Bethel, NY, in August 1969. Tiber claims he was the cru­cial go-between that intro­duced the festival’s orga­niz­ers to Max Yas­gur, own­er of the farm that became the site of the famous three days of music, peace, love, mud, brown acid, and traf­fic jams.

Even if only a por­tion of Elliot’s tall tale is true, it’s incred­i­ble that it has not been dra­ma­tized before now. In his ver­sion of events, an ordi­nary, meek kid becomes the acci­den­tal mid­wife of one of the biggest cul­tur­al events in mod­ern his­to­ry. Mix in most of the hot-but­ton issues of the time — the hip­pie vs. square cul­ture clash, gay awak­en­ing, anti-semi­tism, the mafia, and fall­out from the Kore­an and Viet­nam Wars — and you end up with what should have been a rich­ly defin­i­tive movie deal­ing with the era.

Demetri Martin and Paul Dano in Taking WoodstockTrip­ping the light fan­tas­tic in the mag­ic bus

That Tiber’s account of the fes­ti­val is vig­or­ous­ly dis­put­ed by almost every­one involved (and sober enough to recall events now) is beside the point. The sto­ry is a good one, but the film nev­er seems to cap­ture the joy, anx­i­ety, or excite­ment of the moment. So what if it isn’t true? We already have a sup­pos­ed­ly objec­tive doc­u­men­tary on the fes­ti­val (but more on that below).

The biggest prob­lem is Demetri Mar­tin, who despite his suc­cess as a come­di­an and con­trib­u­tor to The Dai­ly Show, pos­sess­es approx­i­mate­ly as much star charis­ma as a plank. To be fair, his char­ac­ter is writ­ten to be repressed and but­toned-up, but the kid remains bor­ing even after what ought to have been a trans­for­ma­tive num­ber of enlight­en­ing expe­ri­ences, includ­ing his first gay kiss, first acid trip, and betray­al by his moth­er. Emile Hirsch appears in a small role as a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly scarred vet, and clear­ly would have been bet­ter in the lead role. Even Elliot’s par­ents are both more com­pelling char­ac­ters than he. His father’s (Hen­ry Good­man) inter­ac­tions with the bur­geon­ing coun­ter­cul­ture awak­en him from the vir­tu­al coma his life had become, and his moth­er (Imel­da Staunton) is a self-destruc­tive hoard­er, which the film links to Holo­caust survivor’s guilt.

Demetri Martin and Liev Schreiber in Taking WoodstockThat’s a man, baby!

Lee’s visu­als are fair­ly straight­for­ward, mak­ing it rather jar­ring when split-screen sequences visu­al­ly allude to Michael Wedleigh’s doc­u­men­tary Wood­stock (1970). Tak­ing Wood­stock sup­ports Wedleigh’s the­sis that the most­ly harm­less hip­pies that sought a week­end of peace and music instead found hos­tile locals and a com­bat­ive, con­de­scend­ing press. But oth­er moments in Tak­ing Wood­stock serve to under­cut the orig­i­nal doc­u­men­tary, such as when Wedleigh is seen coach­ing a trio of nuns to flash the peace sign. If that icon­ic image was staged, what else might have been false or exag­ger­at­ed? Tak­ing Wood­stock may be a tall tale, but it also makes clear that Wedleigh’s film isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly reli­able either.

Tak­ing Wood­stock ends with orga­niz­er Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff) about to mount anoth­er free con­cert fea­tur­ing the Rolling Stones. The Wood­stock fes­ti­val may have been chaot­ic, but it was suc­cess­ful inso­far that it proved peo­ple could gath­er in mas­sive num­bers and cel­e­brate pos­i­tive­ly and peace­ful­ly. Lang is ener­gized by what he achieved, but the mood is not so opti­mistic for those of us that know how it all turned out. The chaos and mur­der of the Alta­mount débâ­cle that marked the end of the Sum­mer of Love would be doc­u­ment­ed by The Maysles Broth­ers in Gimme Shel­ter (read Matthew Dessem’s excel­lent take on the film at The Cri­te­ri­on Con­trap­tion).

Demetri Martin in Taking WoodstockOne of the most famous traf­fic jams in his­to­ry

Just as Tak­ing Wood­stock nev­er quite takes off, Elliot nev­er actu­al­ly makes it to the con­cert. The fact that we nev­er see it, and bare­ly even hear it, is part of the point. Many of the 400,000 atten­dees prob­a­bly nev­er got any clos­er, either. And even those that did may have been too altered to recall much.

Ran­dom obser­va­tions:

  • There are puz­zling hints that Lang’s assis­tant Tisha (Mamie Gum­mer, Meryl Streep’s daugh­ter) is sig­nif­i­cant, but her char­ac­ter is ulti­mate­ly super­flu­ous. The role is not sig­nif­i­cant enough to match the notable cast­ing.
  • Like con­tem­po­raries Michael Win­ter­bot­tom and Dan­ny Boyle, Ang Lee seems deter­mined to nev­er make the same film twice. Seen in that light, Tak­ing Wood­stock is a refresh­ing break in tone from his grim, thor­ough­ly nonerot­ic Lust, Cau­tion.
  • Fur­ther, it’s also worth not­ing that Eliot’s homo­sex­u­al awak­en­ing is much more suc­cess­ful and ful­fill­ing than that of the tor­tured cow­boys in Broke­back Moun­tain.

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The Ultimate Six-String Summit: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud movie poster


It Might Get Loud indeed, when three gen­er­a­tions of rock gui­tarists con­vene for the ulti­mate six-string sum­mit. Jim­my Page (rep­re­sen­ta­tive of 1970s sta­di­um rock and, with Jeff Beck and Eric Clap­ton, part of the canon­i­cal trin­i­ty of gui­tar heroes) joins The Edge (child of the punk/new wave era but also para­dox­i­cal­ly a bit of an egghead) and Jack White (stu­dent of Amer­i­cana and free­wheel­ing blues-rock of The White Stripes and the Racon­teurs). The three had no doubt crossed paths before now, but prob­a­bly nev­er had a chance to pick each other’s brains, let alone trade licks and jam.

Direc­tor Davis Guggen­heim also made the Al Gore doc­u­men­tary An Incon­ve­nient Truth and the soc­cer dra­ma Gra­cie, but the core con­cept came from Thomas Tull, pro­duc­er of Bat­man: The Dark Knight. As White quips in one of the DVD bonus fea­tures, he thought Page would make a fine Jok­er.

The Edge in It Might Get LoudU2’s The Edge is a child of the punk/new wave era but is also para­dox­i­cal­ly a bit of an egghead

Through­out, White is con­sid­er­ably more wit­ty and spon­ta­neous than the oth­ers, both ver­bal­ly and in his effort­less impro­vi­sa­tion. In com­par­i­son, The Edge some­times seems ret­i­cent and com­pa­ra­bly tongue-tied. Con­sid­er­ing his noto­ri­ety as the man that intro­duced cod-Satanism and Tolkien into Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and iconog­ra­phy, Page is quite the dap­per Eng­lish gen­tle­man. He arrives in a chauf­feured Rolls, while White and even The Edge dri­ve them­selves to the set.

Jack White in It Might Get LoudJack White, of The White Stripes and The Racon­teurs, keeps it real

While Page and White share a back­ground in the blues, The Edge comes from some­where else alto­geth­er. He’s long been more inter­est­ed in son­ics and tex­tures than in impress­ing audi­ences with fleet-fin­gered tech­nique. Page was, for a time, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but of the three, The Edge has enjoyed per­sis­tent fame the longest. He states with total con­vic­tion that This is Spinal Tap was, for him, not fun­ny at all: “it’s all true.” A delet­ed scene answers a ques­tion I’ve long had: U2’s nick­names date back to their child­hood, and now even The Edge’s moth­er now no longer calls him David.

There’s no need for an onscreen inter­view­er when no one else would know bet­ter what to ask these three men than each oth­er. When gui­tarists get togeth­er for gabfests, a nat­ur­al top­ic is to wist­ful­ly rem­i­nisce over their first instru­ments (The Edge and White still own and play theirs). Their con­ver­sa­tion is inter­spersed with short ani­mat­ed sequences and price­less ear­ly footage, with relics includ­ing embar­rass­ing very ear­ly footage of U2 as gawky teenagers.

All three have enjoyed com­fort and suc­cess for quite some time, so it comes as a rather awk­ward shift in tone when they are called to reflect on times of cri­sis in their careers. None were instant stars. Page’s ear­ly anx­i­eties are the most inter­est­ing; he became a high­ly suc­cess­ful ses­sion gui­tarist fair­ly ear­ly on (work­ing large­ly in the now-for­got­ten musi­cal genre of Skif­fle), but real­ized he was look­ing at a cre­ative dead-end. He found release in The Yard­birds, a fer­tile caul­dron that famous­ly also includ­ed Beck and Clap­ton at var­i­ous times, and arguably invent­ed hard rock. The hair came down, the pants flared, and the cel­lo bow came out. Mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist White recounts a child­hood sleep­ing on the floor in a room too crowd­ed with drums to leave room for a bed, and found­ing his first band while work­ing the lone­ly job of fur­ni­ture uphol­ster­er. The Edge recalls the con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal tur­moil of Ire­land as a back­drop to his anx­i­ety over being “just a gui­tarist” and pos­si­bly nev­er a song­writer. From this cri­sis of con­fi­dence came the polit­i­cal­ly charged U2 stan­dard “Sun­day Bloody Sun­day.” His sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tions to U2 were delib­er­ate­ly obscured by the unusu­al­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic band; it’s only recent­ly that they have begun to talk more open­ly about their inter­nal divi­sion of labor (gen­er­al­ly, Edge demos the music, Bono sup­plies the lyrics, Lar­ry works along­side the pro­duc­er, and Adam is res­i­dent sar­to­ri­al­ist).

Jimmy Page in It Might Get LoudLed Zeppelin’s Jim­my Page is now quite the dap­per gent, but was once an infa­mous 70s bad boy that intro­duced cod-satanism and Tolkien to sta­di­um rock

The nat­ur­al wish is for the three to strap on their gui­tars and jam. So as each is cel­e­brat­ed as much for their song­writ­ing as for their chops, they take turns teach­ing the oth­ers one of their sig­na­ture tunes. The Edge’s chim­ing “I Will Fol­low” riff fails to take off, but Page’s “In My Time of Dying” pro­vides a bed for some fan­tas­tic slide-gui­tar solos from all three play­ers. The cli­mac­tic clos­ing tune is ill-cho­sen; The Band’s “The Weight” is with­out a doubt a great, clas­sic song, but not much of a gui­tar show­case.

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Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back


As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s dif­fi­cult to admit that I find myself strug­gling to appre­ci­ate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his lit­er­ate song­writ­ing, metic­u­lous sound­scapes, and emo­tion­al­ly expres­sive voice. Behind the creep­i­ly organ­ic album art, Scratch My Back is an exper­i­ment in sub­trac­tion. It finds Gabriel cov­er­ing oth­er artists’ songs, accom­pa­nied only by solo piano or orches­tra (the odd­ly defen­sive mar­ket­ing pitch “No drums, no gui­tars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soul­ful and grav­el­ly even as a teenage cofounder of Gen­e­sis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to jus­ti­fy any­thing, so my pat reduc­tion here is not total­ly fair. Gabriel and John Met­calfe clear­ly labored over these orches­tral arrange­ments, but I miss the com­plex son­ics of the rock and world music instru­men­ta­tion that has char­ac­ter­ized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very near­ly the oppo­site a decade ago, when his high-con­cept mil­len­ni­um project Ovo made a point of cast­ing Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Eliz­a­beth Fras­er to sing his songs. The most recent col­lec­tion of his own songs was 2002’s Up, fol­lowed in 2009 by the col­lab­o­ra­tive project Big Blue Ball. Casu­al fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active human­i­tar­i­an, par­tic­u­lar­ly as cofounder of Wit­ness and The Elders, so the tem­po­ral gap between his musi­cal ven­tures is not entire­ly explained by chron­ic pro­cras­ti­na­tion (although he would prob­a­bly be the first to admit he’s eas­i­ly dis­tract­ed). Gabriel has stat­ed that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he pre­pares a new album over which he can claim sole author­ship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

I was try­ing to make a grown-up record […] This is treat­ing peo­ple as if they can han­dle dif­fi­cult music and words. Not that I’ve court­ed the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor before, but there’s a play­ful­ness and child­ish­ness in some of my old­er work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is pre­sum­ably refer­ring to the media satire of “Games With­out Fron­tiers” and “The Bar­ry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledge­ham­mer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaude­ville silli­ness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musi­cians that I first lis­tened to as a teenag­er, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expect­ed myself to appre­ci­ate an album of him cov­er­ing many songs that I know and love well (par­tic­u­lar­ly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talk­ing Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeat­ed lis­ten­ing.

Many song­writ­ers lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tor­tured, prick­ly Roger Waters is now a big smi­ley soft­ie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been fol­low­ing that track too. After leav­ing Gen­e­sis in 1975 to deal with fam­i­ly issues, his first four solo albums were increas­ing­ly dark and sin­is­ter. But 1986’s So marked a notice­able turn­around in tone and an appar­ent psy­chic heal­ing. Now report­ed­ly still pals with his old Gen­e­sis cohorts, aging grace­ful­ly into a pot­bel­ly and gnomish goa­tee, remar­ry­ing, father­ing two new sons, and rec­on­cil­ing with his two daugh­ters from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage, he seemed to be trans­form­ing into a cud­dly grand­fa­ther fig­ure. A trick­le of releas­es over the past decade showed him favor­ing direct­ly-word­ed songs for chil­dren, includ­ing the Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsub­tle “Ani­mal Nation” (from The The Wild Thorn­ber­rys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Sud­den­ly, he appears to have reversed back into depres­sive ter­ri­to­ry. Near­ly every song cho­sen for Scratch My Back has been trans­formed into a mourn­ful dirge. Espe­cial­ly when lis­tened to in one sit­ting, I find many of the inter­pre­ta­tions to be too depress­ing, and I actu­al­ly like depress­ing music. My favorite exam­ples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cov­er of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Don­nie Darko), and Elbow’s ago­niz­ing­ly heartrend­ing ver­sion of U2’s “Run­ning to Stand Still” (from the War Child ben­e­fit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s ver­sion of The Mag­net­ic Fields’ “Book of Love” has appar­ent­ly become some­thing of a sen­sa­tion on YouTube, licensed in tele­vi­sion shows, and played at celebri­ty wed­dings. Per­haps I’m cold­heart­ed, but it does absolute­ly noth­ing for me. Song­writer Stephin Mer­ritt says his ver­sion was sar­cas­tic, while Gabriel’s is dead­ly seri­ous:

At first I thought, How hilar­i­ous, he’s got a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent take on the song. But after a few lis­tens I find it quite sweet. My ver­sion of the song focus­es on the humor, and his focus­es on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he inten­tion­al­ly trans­form it into some­thing sen­ti­men­tal, singing the same words but alter­ing the instru­men­ta­tion and deliv­ery? All that said, some­thing to cher­ish in Gabriel’s cov­er is the pres­ence of his daugh­ter Melanie on back­ing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mir­ror­ball” is one of the most rav­ish­ing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, pro­vid­ing a more organ­ic rock struc­ture to Gabriel’s per­haps over-processed stu­dio orig­i­nal. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turn­ing their gor­geous love song into a depres­sive bum­mer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bum­mer-o-vision may have actu­al­ly been appro­pri­ate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bub­ble”, which actu­al­ly does have very dark lyrics.

The orig­i­nal record­ing of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unfor­get­table lead gui­tar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must sub­tract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emo­tion I asso­ciate with the song.

The one song I liked imme­di­ate­ly was “Lis­ten­ing Wind”. The orig­i­nal is one of the odd­er tracks on Talk­ing Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amaz­ing­ly draws out a catchy melody embed­ded in the exper­i­men­tal song.

The Spe­cial Edi­tion includes a sec­ond cd with four bonus tracks: a cov­er of The Kinks’ “Water­loo Sun­set” and alter­nate ver­sions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been inter­est­ing to also include some of Gabriel’s past cov­ers, includ­ing The Bea­t­les’ “Straw­ber­ry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instru­men­tal mix­es of some of Metcalfe’s orches­tral arrange­ments.

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MGMT live in Brooklyn, July 1, 2009


The electronic/disco/pop/rock group MGMT has made a huge splash, earn­ing spots on tours with no less than Paul McCart­ney and Beck. The wild­ly catchy “Time to Pre­tend,” “Elec­tric Feel,” and “Kids” (the lat­ter fea­tur­ing a tru­ly deranged music video) are not out of keep­ing with the rest of their reper­toire in terms of style and instru­men­ta­tion, but the infec­tious hooks do stand apart from the for­get­table rest. At their Cel­e­brate Brook­lyn con­cert in Prospect Park on July 1, they debuted a few new songs set for their forth­com­ing sopho­more album that didn’t imme­di­ate­ly grab me either.

MGMT live in Prospect ParkMGMT live in Prospect Park

For a band called “synth-hip­pies” by Pitch­fork, they all looked rather clean-cut to me (but they evi­dent­ly have a very young and boozy audi­ence — one kid passed out and lit­er­al­ly col­lapsed on our feet only a few songs into the con­cert). Their sound may be very elec­tron­ic and a throw­back to dis­co, but their live instru­men­ta­tion is very rock gui­tar ori­ent­ed. The only excep­tion being “Kids,” for which the band put down their ana­log instru­ments and let the syn­the­siz­ers and sequencers take over, even recre­at­ing a live fade­out.

MGMT live in Prospect ParkMGMT live in Prospect Park

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Buy the MGMT album Orac­u­lar Spec­tac­u­lar from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009


The Cal­i­for­nia Gui­tar Trio may not actu­al­ly be from Cal­i­for­nia (they actu­al­ly hail from Bel­gium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a gui­tar. In a way, that tells you every­thing and noth­ing you need to know. As des­ig­nat­ed spokesman Paul Richards explained dur­ing their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as stu­dents in one of Robert Fripp’s ear­ly Gui­tar Craft cours­es. The promis­ing pupils became mem­bers of the tour­ing out­fits The League of Crafty Gui­tarists and The Robert Fripp String Quin­tet, and formed the CGT to present their orig­i­nal reper­toire inter­spersed with well-cho­sen pro­gres­sive rock and clas­si­cal cov­ers. As a King Crim­son fan, I’ve wound up see­ing them live no less than three times, all with­out hav­ing specif­i­cal­ly meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadel­phia still stands in my mind as one of the best con­certs I’ve attend­ed, and I recall their open­ing sets for King Crim­son in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audi­ences (dur­ing most con­certs I’ve been to, audi­ences can’t be pried away from the bar dur­ing the open­ing act). Richards also told the crowd they had been record­ing and tour­ing the world for 18 years, long since deserv­ing to cease being described as for­mer stu­dents of Fripp. (but a lit­tle name­drop­ping nev­er hurts!)

California Guitar Trio liveCal­i­for­nia Gui­tar Trio

Mon­day night’s con­cert was also an unmiss­able chance to see Tony Levin’s Stick Men, a new band formed with fel­low stick play­er Michael Bernier and drum­mer Pat Mas­telot­to. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s great­est bassists, a fan-favorite (lis­ten for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel intro­duces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to men­tion one of the world’s longest-run­ning blog­gers. Mas­telot­to is a pow­er­house, a true drum demon obvi­ous­ly enjoy­ing him­self enor­mous­ly on his array of acoustic drums plus var­i­ous elec­tron­ics a drum geek would have to iden­ti­fy (com­ments below, please). He shat­tered a stick at one point (star­tling Bernier as a bit of shrap­nel flew in his direc­tion), but deft­ly swapped the casu­al­ty for a new one. I’m not famil­iar with Bernier’s music, but as if his tal­ents weren’t obvi­ous on Mon­day night, Levin gave him props as a play­er who influ­enced his own tech­nique (mean­ing a lot com­ing from the leg­end that helped pio­neer the Chap­man Stick instru­ment in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a lit­tle bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio liveCal­i­for­nia Gui­tar Trio & Tyler Trot­ter per­form Tubu­lar Bells

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the Trio gave a mel­low, con­tem­pla­tive show, while the Stick Men came out blast­ing with some very dense, funky, most­ly instru­men­tal prog rock. They were real­ly, real­ly loud — very glad I brought my earplugs — and even chased a few peo­ple out of the venue. I’m shame­ful­ly behind on my CGT and Levin album-buy­ing, so I wasn’t famil­iar with much of the lat­er reper­toire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (includ­ing what I think is a rare copy of an epony­mous cd I pur­chased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even list­ed on their offi­cial site). Copies of their lat­est are on order from Ama­zon as I write, but I picked up a pris­tine-sound­ing live record­ing avail­able for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list accord­ing to Hideyo Moriya’s Road­cam, along with some of my sub­jec­tive com­ments:

  1. Pun­ta Patri
  2. Unmei — Beethoven’s 5th Sym­pho­ny rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf gui­tar style that total­ly, unex­pect­ed­ly works.
  3. Cathe­dral Peak
  4. Tubu­lar Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run — A con­densed ver­sion of the album-length pro­gres­sive rock epic by Mike Old­field (per­haps more famous­ly known as the theme music from The Exor­cist). Their sound guy Tyler Trot­ter joined the band on melodi­um.
  5. Port­land Rain
  6. Androm­e­da
  7. TX
  8. Moon­light Sonata — Richards briefly described Fripp’s Gui­tar Craft les­son of “cir­cu­la­tion” as a key tech­nique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve dis­trib­uted the notes among three gui­tars, pass­ing sin­gle notes from one to anoth­er. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to clas­si­cal music, Bach in par­tic­u­lar seems well-suit­ed for the gui­tar.
  9. Echoes — Long­time Pink Floyd fans (myself includ­ed, I must admit) rec­og­nized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audi­ence went nuts, even more so than when some King Crim­son cov­ers appeared lat­er in the evening! The CGT ver­sion includes a gor­geous ambi­ent inter­lude, stretch­ing the bounds of what an acoustic gui­tar can do when con­nect­ed to all sorts of elec­tron­ic devices.
  10. Eve — Levin joined them for this bal­lad, sound­ing a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Mel­rose Avenue — A great, terse rock­er. With Levin & Mas­telot­to.
  12. Block­head — With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omit­ted any kind of solo (Fripp him­self plays a stun­ner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amaz­ing­ly, they start­ed cir­cu­lat­ing pow­er chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which includ­ed the fol­low­ing (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red — The clas­sic King Crim­son barn­stormer, which Levin mod­est­ly iden­ti­fied as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indis­ci­pline — Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Super­con­duc­tor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II — An effort­less-seem­ing ver­sion with the CGT. King Crim­son fans will know what I’m talk­ing about when I say here’s anoth­er pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­tion of the “Dou­ble Trio” con­cept.

California Guitar Trio & Stick Men liveCal­i­for­nia Gui­tar Trio & Stick Men

Levin con­grat­u­lat­ed an audi­ence mem­ber in the first row for con­sum­ing a slice of cheese­cake dur­ing one of the rock­i­er num­bers. He also described their recent, great­ly mean­der­ing Euro­pean tour, which sound­ed very excit­ing to some­one with a nor­mal day job. No doubt a pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian will quick­ly counter that that much trav­el­ing and bor­der-cross­ing is gru­el­ing. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men liveTony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for read­ing, and I invite any­one to please com­ment below. And final­ly, if any­one cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fel­low New York­ers might know what I’m talk­ing about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usu­al. Mon­day was one of those days, and the nut­ters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preach­er wield­ing a cross made of twist­ed wire. Min­utes lat­er, the guy sit­ting next to me in Star­bucks got an ear­ful from a total­ly dif­fer­ent preach­er. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audi­ence mem­ber in the back near me was obvi­ous­ly stoned; not on some­thing rel­a­tive­ly harm­less that mere­ly makes you stu­pid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you man­ic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loud­ly bab­bling for the entire con­cert, and was almost lit­er­al­ly bounc­ing off the walls. I kept hop­ing the man­age­ment would toss him out, but no luck.

Offi­cial band sites: and

Buy the Cal­i­for­nia Gui­tar Trio’s Echoes and Tony Levin’s Stick Man from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Nine Inch Nails & Jane’s Addiction live at Jones Beach, June 7, 2009



Street Sweep­er Social Club, the new band formed by Rage Against the Machine gui­tarist Tom Morel­lo, opened. Their badass cov­er of M.I.A.‘s “Paper Planes” was a high­light.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York


It felt wrong some­how to see a band as moody and dark as Nine Inch Nails play while the sun was still up. But clouds soon moved in, obscur­ing a sun­set that would have been impres­sive over the water, mak­ing every­thing suit­ably gloomy and very, very cold as NIN chased sum­mer away. This stripped-down four-piece ver­sion of the band played a great cov­er of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Amer­i­cans,” the best song Nine Inch Nails could have but nev­er wrote, and end­ed with the over­whelm­ing­ly sad “Hurt.” Sur­pris­ing­ly omit­ted was “Clos­er,” what I would assume to be a req­ui­site entry in any NIN set list (but the end theme did fea­ture in a short instru­men­tal jam). Speak­ing of, said jam was one of only two instru­men­tal por­tions of the set (the oth­er being The Fragile’s ambi­ent inter­lude “The Frail”). A lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing, giv­en that Trent Reznor has been becom­ing more and more musi­cal­ly exper­i­men­tal and adven­tur­ous of late, with whole chunks of The Frag­ile and the entire­ty of the mas­sive two-disc Ghosts being instru­men­tal. Per­son­al­ly, when it comes to Nine Inch Nails, the music (not so much the gloomy lyrics) is where the action is for me.

Nine Inch Nails live at Jones Beach New York


All thanks to Reznor for play­ing peace­keep­er in reunit­ing the noto­ri­ous­ly frac­tious and unsta­ble Jane’s Addic­tion, at least for the length of the NIN/JA tour. Basi­cal­ly a funk/prog/metal pow­er-trio front­ed by the antics of Per­ry Far­rell, a… unique indi­vid­ual whose ego (he once re-released a raft of Jane’s Addic­tion songs under just his own name on a solo great­est hits album) has often cre­at­ed con­flict with bassist Eric Avery. The full moon peek­ing out from the clouds prob­a­bly only added to Farrell’s luna­cy. They opened with their mag­num opus “Three Days,” an epic fea­tur­ing more dis­crete gui­tar solos by Dave Navar­ro than I could count. Hon­est­ly, where do you go from there? They kept find­ing high points to hit, how­ev­er, includ­ing “Ocean Size” and the clos­er (what else?) “Jane Says.” It only took a few songs for the age­less Navarro’s vest to dis­ap­pear (he must have one heck of a per­son­al train­er, not to men­tion a chest hair wax­er), and Perry’s shirt fol­lowed short­ly there­after.

Jane's Addiction live at Jones Beach New York


Reznor has made vague nois­es about Nine Inch Nails com­ing to some kind of end fol­low­ing this tour. It remains to be seen whether he means retir­ing the name in favor of solo work, start­ing a new band, or sim­ply ceas­ing to tour for a while. He’s report­ed­ly been clean & sober for some time now, and engaged to be mar­ried, so more pow­er to him. If he retreats now, he’d be going out on a high note. I hope the orig­i­nal line­up of Jane’s Addic­tion man­ages to keep it togeth­er to con­tin­ue work­ing in some form or anoth­er. With only two stu­dio albums to their cred­it (I’m not count­ing the awful Strays, writ­ten & record­ed with­out Avery’s inim­itable bass), the world needs some new songs from them.


I had a lit­tle unex­pect­ed adven­ture on the long trip from Man­hat­tan all the way out to Jones Beach. Met a few fans on the Long Island Rail­road as we debat­ed the var­i­ous ways of get­ting there, all of which suck. Thanks to Kim & friend for the impromp­tu car ride to the venue! But I didn’t have the same luck on the way back, an ordeal that includ­ed wait­ing a full hour for a LIRR train to arrive. Pic­ture dozens of hun­gry fans, shiv­er­ing atop an ele­vat­ed plat­form in the mid­dle of nowhere.

Jane's Addiction live at Jones Beach New York


Blech. Sur­round­ed on three sides by water, Jones Beach sounds nice in the­o­ry, but in per­son it’s cold. Nev­er mind if you’re going to a show there dur­ing the sum­mer; dress warm­ly. Also, for a music lover used to all kinds of venues in Man­hat­tan and Brook­lyn, it’s in the mid­dle of nowhere, with no food or water for lit­er­al­ly miles. The exor­bi­tant con­ces­sion prices are, let’s be hon­est here, graft. Just to keep from dehy­drat­ing and get­ting a migraine from all the sec­ond-hand pot smoke, I reluc­tant­ly paid $6.50 for a bot­tled water, which I cer­tain­ly hope the venue recy­cled. Also, the sound sys­tem is kin­da crap­py. Jane’s were notice­ably loud­er than NIN, but Farrell’s mike sound­ed pret­ty muf­fled, espe­cial­ly on the first and last songs.


The audi­ence was a weird mix­ture of goths, met­al­heads, and gray­ing thir­tysome­things like me. Although NIN has remained extreme­ly rel­e­vant for some time now, the orig­i­nal Jane’s line­up has been out of action for more than a decade, and both bands date back to the late 80s / ear­ly 1990s, when I was in high school. The black-fin­ger­nailed lon­ers didn’t sur­prise me, but I didn’t real­ly expect so many head­bangers. I even saw a mid­dle-aged, beard­ed, fat dude in a skirt, a look I thought fiz­zled on arrival in the mid-90s. In ret­ro­spect, I shouldn’t real­ly have been sur­prised, but I come at Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addic­tion from a dif­fer­ent angle. Lis­ten­ing to NIN is an exten­sion of my appre­ci­a­tion for elec­tron­ic and pro­gres­sive rock, and Jane’s vis­cer­al­ly filthy, slight­ly sleazy rock owes more than a lit­tle to Led Zep­pelin (who were also arguably a bit prog).

Offi­cial band sites: and

Buy The Slip, Nine Inch Nails’ lat­est album, and the new Jane’s Addic­tion rar­i­ties boxed set A Cab­i­net of Curiosi­ties from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009


The Scot­tish instru­men­tal rock out­fit Mog­wai earned their rep­u­ta­tion in part for sheer vol­ume, like My Bloody Valen­tine and The Who before them. Their music is also notable for explor­ing the kinds of extreme dynam­ics you usu­al­ly only hear in elec­tron­i­ca or pro­gres­sive rock, whol­ly unlike the fatigu­ing con­stant loud­ness of most pop, punk, and met­al.

My teeth are still res­onat­ing. This was far and away the most vis­cer­al­ly phys­i­cal con­cert I’ve ever attend­ed. In all seri­ous­ness, I believe it would be pos­si­ble for a deaf per­son to enjoy a Mog­wai show. I don’t mean to be offen­sive to the deaf com­mu­ni­ty here; I felt the waves of sound as much as I could hear them.

This con­cert, part of a three-night stand at The Music Hall of Williams­burg, was filmed and might appear on a future DVD.

Mogwai live at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, April 2009Mog­wai fear noth­ing

Offi­cial band site:

Buy Mogwai’s lat­est album The Hawk is Howl­ing from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Lou Reed’s Berlin



Lou Reed’s 1973 album Berlin is a con­cept album relat­ing the tale of a doomed woman named Car­o­line liv­ing in the epony­mous city. The term “con­cept album,” then and now, invokes imme­di­ate con­de­scen­sion from fans and crit­ics alike, call­ing to mind the pro­gres­sive rock excess­es of 1970s mega­bands The Who (Tom­my and Quadrophe­nia) and Yes (Tales from Topo­graph­ic Oceans). The poet and arty down­town Man­hat­tan­ite Reed might have bet­ter served him­self by refer­ring to Berlin as some­thing more fan­cy-sound­ing, per­haps a “song cycle.”

Reed’s pre­vi­ous album Trans­former was a great com­mer­cial suc­cess, debut­ing the endur­ing hits Satel­lite of Love, Per­fect Day, and Walk on the Wild Side. To fol­low it up with some­thing like Berlin may have been loaded with artis­tic integri­ty, but was ask­ing for trou­ble in terms of mak­ing a liv­ing. I recall read­ing that enough mate­r­i­al was record­ed for it to be a dou­ble-lp, but it was edit­ed down to a sin­gle disc before release (I can’t find a source for this fac­toid online, but I believe it was relat­ed in the lin­er notes of his 1992 ret­ro­spec­tive boxed set Between Thought and Expres­sion). Pro­duced by Bob Ezrin (whose con­cept album cre­den­tials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a com­mer­cial dis­as­ter at the time. So, cursed from the begin­ning, the full stu­dio ver­sion has appar­ent­ly nev­er been released.

lou_reed_berlin_1.jpgCar­o­line says / While bit­ing her lip / Life is meant to be more than this”

In ret­ro­spect, Reed now seems to have been com­pelled to flee from com­mer­cial suc­cess, or at the very least was bound and deter­mined not to repeat him­self. Reed’s oth­er infa­mous com­mer­cial dis­as­ter Met­al Machine Music was anoth­er delib­er­ate provo­ca­tion: even the most open mind­ed musi­col­o­gist might char­i­ta­bly char­ac­ter­ize it as ear­split­ting noise. But Berlin is dif­fer­ent, hat­ed more for its tone and sub­ject mat­ter than its sound. Sev­er­al of the songs are love­ly, but wow is the com­plete work depress­ing, full of anger, ven­om, resent­ment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is espe­cial­ly har­row­ing, end­ing with a tape of chil­dren wail­ing.

Over time, the album was even­tu­al­ly redis­cov­ered. One of those reap­prais­ing Berlin was no less than artist and film­mak­er Julian Schn­abel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schn­abel pro­posed to Reed that Berlin real­ly ought to be a film. Schn­abel is obvi­ous­ly attract­ed to artists ded­i­cat­ed to their work with utter con­vic­tion: rev­o­lu­tion­ary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the epony­mous biopic, the gay poet Reinal­do Are­nas in Cas­tro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the par­a­lyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bau­by in The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly (read The Dork Report review). Berlin’s DVD bonus fea­tures include a brief con­ver­sa­tion with Reed and Schn­abel on Elvis Costello’s show Spec­ta­cle, in which Schn­abel describes his attrac­tion to the cin­e­ma from the per­spec­tive of a painter: he rev­er­ent­ly refers to the can­vas-like movie screen as “The Rec­tan­gle.”

Some­thing that only peo­ple who’ve seem him live would know is that Reed is a great gui­tar play­er. He’s also vis­i­bly in sur­pris­ing­ly good shape for a for­mer junkie (sor­ry, but it’s true). Does he prac­tice yoga? Reed in per­for­mance is supreme­ly cool and detached, but some star­tling­ly real emo­tion comes through in his vocal deliv­ery; he spits out the lines “they took her chil­dren away” from the song “The Kids” with real ven­om.

lou_reed_berlin_2.jpgAntony dances the rock min­uet

Orig­i­nal gui­tarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can bare­ly con­tain his plea­sure, despite the grim sub­ject mat­ter. Bob Ezrin con­ducts with great enthu­si­asm, but odd­ly, he seems to be fac­ing the drum­mer, away from the choir and wood­winds. One of my favorite bassists, Fer­nan­do Saun­ders, doesn’t real­ly get to shine, but per­haps it was my sound sys­tem that couldn’t do him jus­tice. Julian Schnabel’s daugh­ter Lola direct­ed film clips pro­ject­ed dur­ing the per­for­mance, star­ring Emmanuelle Seign­er as Car­o­line.

So Reed final­ly got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole. Now the once-den­i­grat­ed work has become a world tour, a the­atri­cal fea­ture film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now con­sid­ered a New York deity, not the errat­ic hero­in addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plen­ty of time for more dra­ma, but could this be his ulti­mate revenge?

The encore includes a spe­cial treat, a love­ly ver­sion of Rock Min­uet sung by Antony Hegar­ty (of Antony and the John­sons) in his oth­er­world­ly voice. Rock Min­uet was not from the orig­i­nal album, but a spe­cial request from Schn­abel, who right­ly felt it belonged. But it’s fol­lowed by a bum­mer: a desul­to­ry per­for­mance of the Vel­vet Under­ground stan­dard Sweet Jane. It’s a let­down that after the emo­tion­al­ly intense pro­ceed­ings, that Reed seems tru­ly bored here and just walks through a song he’s prob­a­bly played hun­dreds if not thou­sands of times.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Sigur Rós: Heima

Sigur Ros Heima Movie Poster


Dean DeBlois’ doc­u­men­tary film Heima (mean­ing “com­ing home” or “at home”) fol­lows the band Sig­ur Rós on their sum­mer 2006 tour of their home coun­try Ice­land. The tour con­sist­ed of most­ly free, unan­nounced con­certs, and with the band in three basic con­fig­u­ra­tions span­ning the con­tin­uüm of the pure­ly acoustic to the ful­ly elec­tric. The four core mem­bers Jón Þór “Jón­si” Bir­gis­son, Georg “Gog­gi” Hólm, Kjar­tan “Kjar­ri” Sveins­son, and Orri Páll Dýra­son per­form sev­er­al acoustic songs just for the cam­era. The extend­ed band (includ­ing string ensem­ble Ami­ina) is also seen per­form­ing out­doors, ful­ly unplugged, at a con­cert protest­ing an envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive dam to be built by the Ice­landic gov­ern­ment. Final­ly, in con­trast, we also see the full band in indoor con­certs with dra­mat­ic light­ing and video effects.

Sigur Ros HeimaSig­ur Rós live in con­cert

Most Sig­ur Rós songs are sung in an invent­ed lan­guage called Von­len­s­ka (“Hopelandic”), adding to the uni­ver­sal­i­ty and inter­na­tion­al appeal of their music. For the unini­ti­at­ed, Sig­ur Rós are a key rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the musi­cal genre “post-rock,” which gen­er­al­ly refers to high­ly evoca­tive, cin­e­mat­ic, large­ly instru­men­tal music some­times com­pared to movie sound­track com­po­si­tion. Oth­er notable bands work­ing in rough­ly the same idiom include Mog­wai, Explo­sions in the Sky, and Múm. In this Dork Reporter’s opin­ion, you can trace the genre’s her­itage back to the pro­gres­sive rock of Yes and King Crim­son.

Sigur Ros HeimaSig­ur Rós live in con­cert

Inter­view clips and stun­ning land­scape images punc­tu­ate the film, mak­ing it almost as much about Ice­land itself as the band. The most incon­gru­ous clip is from the avant-garde band’s unlike­ly appear­ance on the Late Late Show with Craig Kil­born. They dis­cuss being unpre­pared for the busi­ness side of a career in music (lawyers, con­tracts, etc.), but under­stand that they have to think of the future.

The sec­ond disc of the two DVD set fea­tures full unin­ter­rupt­ed per­for­mances, but with no two songs played in sequence, let alone a full con­cert. The frag­men­ta­tion of both the main doc­u­men­tary film and the sup­ple­men­tary fea­tures is mild­ly dis­ap­point­ing. How­ev­er, as report­ed in Pitch­fork, the band has plans for a full con­cert film direct­ed by Vin­cent Moris­set.

Offi­cial movie sites: and

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.