Newly released by Chrome Dreams, a small entertainment company specializing in unauthorized biographies on musical artists, be it in DVD, book, or CD form, The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review is a documentary look at the indie rock pioneer’s classic 1986 album. The Smiths are easily one of my favourite bands, and The Queen is Dead is my favourite album by them. I’m also the kind of guy who reads music biographies, buys both CDs and vinyl, and, you know, writes reviews on the internet as a hobby. So you’d figure that this would be right up my alley.
That’s what I thought when the opportunity to check this out presented itself. Sadly, there are different levels to fandom, even at the upper reaches. I’m a big fan of The Smiths, criticism, and documentaries, and even I don’t fall into the target audience for a project such as this. Instead, this is for obsessives only. Obsessives are the type of fans who learn the language of their favourite fictional alien race, memorize the most obscure stats of their favourite teams, or spend all their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and original, not re-released — underlined — Frank Zappa albums.
The natural inclination is to belittle such obsessives, as some of them do make it pretty easy. But the truth is, the only thing that separates me from them is my wider range of interests. I don’t have the patience to watch a dry, 115 minute documentary about The Queen is Dead, whose closest interview subject to the album is the producer of the album (Stephen Street) mostly because I spread my obsessiveness to a number of different amusements, instead of specializing in one field.
But obsessives seem to be who Chrome Dreams cater to, without much to offer a mere fan such as myself. Seriously, look again at my introductory paragraph at the part where I say that they make unauthorized biographical CDs on artists. Yes, CDs. So if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t think that a wee bit ridiculous, then this DVD might be your thing.
For the rest of us, it’s simply too dry, too long, and too inessential to bother with. As I just mentioned, the closest subject matter expert they could get was producer Stephen Street, who does succeed in revealing some interesting tidbits on what went into the making of the album, albeit more from a technical standpoint.
He’s the kind of interviewee that would best supplement this sort of thing, instead of being the main attraction (to the degree that an additional special feature is dedicated to portions of his interview that didn’t make the nearly two-hour documentary). After that, the next big get is Craig Gannon, the guitarist the band brought in during the two week period when bassist Andy Rourke was fired (to prove my mere fan status, I was completely unaware of this chapter of the band’s history).
So there aren’t a lot of insights to be had here in terms of artistic process, other than a few archival interviews of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, or some secondhand accounts from Street and Gannon. Which isn’t to say that a solid doc couldn’t be made without the input of the notoriously prickly Moz, but it would require more engaging interview subjects than does this one, and most importantly, it needs more visual flair.
The sort of dry, informational approach that can work in a medium like books, where a reader generally approaches in multiple sittings, doesn’t work in the visual medium of film, which is usually consumed in one sitting. The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review is as visually repetitive a documentary as you’ll see outside of a classroom, strictly relying on static talking heads and archival footage from concerts and music videos. It’s telling that no director is credited with putting the film together, as there is no visual style to it at all. It is merely the workmanlike effort of an editor and whoever conducted the interviews, and it shows.
That said, it may have been enough, were the documentary not so interminably long. Two hours is probably too much time given the subject matter, but it is definitely too much given the paucity of insider knowledge and visual distinctiveness. Chop this thing down to an hour, and put it out as a TV series on classic albums, and I’d probably still tune in every week even with the above problems. But as it is, I can’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t obsessed with the subject matter, and even then, there might not be enough info here that an obsessive doesn’t already know.
Starring: Stephen Street, Craig Gannon, Johnny Rogan, Len Browne, Steven Logan, Brett Anderson, Gavin Hopps, Douglas Noble, Grant Showbiz, Tony Wilson, Morrissey [archival footage], Johnny Marr [archival footage], Thomas Arnold [narrator]