Elvis makes a Spectacle of himself
In a strange bit of inverted cultural colonialism, Elvis Costello’s new music/chat show, Spectacle, debuted up here in Canada last night, although the program was developed in this North both great and white. I understand it has aired on the Sundance Channel in the US and elsewhere, so bear with me while I catch up.
It’s always been a puzzle that even as music television (in all its various guises) became more popular and ubiquitous, television programming about music became even rarer, at least in North America. I’ve often cast a longing glance at the old world and marveled that shows like the Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube and Top of the Pops in the UK and Musikladen in Germany could become institutions. More recently, Jools Holland’s UK program has become the primary exemplar of music TV programming that is focused not on gossip, not on celebrity fashion and not on vacuous banter between guest and host, but on music — making it, thinking about it, talking about it, appreciating it.
As evidenced by the debut episode, with Costello in conversation and performance with Elton John (one of the show’s producers), Spectacle digs even deeper into exploring the genuine affection musicians have for music, and how deeply thoughtful they can be on the subject.
As charming and talented as he is, Costello displayed remarkable restraint, letting his well researched questions prompt some extraordinary anecdotes out of John in a manner that seemed organic and engagingly conversational. For his patient prodding, viewers were treated to some fascinating stories from Sir Elton’s early days when he served as a backing band leader for visiting American R&B singers on the downside of fame.
There was a curious moment where Elton invoked in passing both Bonnie Bramlett and Ray Charles — two figures at the center of probably the most notorious and shameful moments in the host’s early offstage career (Google it if you want details) — but it mercifully passed without an evident ripple. The influence of neglected music icons such as Leon Russell, Laura Nyro and Davic Ackles was ably demonstrated by Elton at the piano, and if there is one drawback to the Spectacle, it’s the fact that conversation dominates the musical moments. This is most emphatically a talk show about music, not a music show interrupted by talk. Although it’s hard to complain when we were treated to a sublime opening rendition of Elton’s “Border Song,” with Allen Toussaint duetting with Costello and former Elvis Presley sideman James Burton sitting in on guitar.
Subsequent shows featuring Lou Reed, Renee Fleming, Bill Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones, John Mellencamp, Rosanne Cash, Smokey Robinson, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel and Elvis’ missus Diana Krall (with Elton returning as interviewer for that episode) are, as evidence by clips posted online, equally focused on the love of music and the central role it plays in the lives of music fans and players.
A spectacular start.