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At the Movies: Barenaked in America

By CHRISTY LEMIRE, For The Associated Press, September 2000.

Jason Priestley really wants you to like the Barenaked Ladies.

The former "Beverly Hills, 90210" star portrays the Canadian pop group so positively in his documentary "Barenaked in America" that if you haven't heard of them before, you'll be a fan by the time the film is over. And if you're already a fan, you'll listen to their catchy tunes with a different ear.

Priestley, directing his first full-length film, follows the band for two weeks of their 1998 U.S. tour, including stops in Buffalo, N.Y.; Philadelphia; Boston; and New York City.

A Canadian native, Priestley seems to have a twofold purpose: He really likes these guys as friends and musicians and wants everyone else to enjoy them, too. And he hopes to enlighten Americans who may have some misperceptions about Canadians.

Between backstage joking and onstage jamming, Priestley sprinkles comments from music experts and the band members themselves about how hard it is for Canadian artists to make it big in the United States.

Terry David Mulligan, labeled in an interview as a "Canadian music guru", goes so far as to say his countrymen's ears are better attuned to quality music. Judging by the success of the Barenaked Ladies south of the border, it would seem that Americans share this superhuman quality. In 1998, the group's first No. 1 hit, the upbeat, free-flowing "One Week," got constant airplay on U.S. radio stations.

In "Barenaked in America", we meet the band members in one-on-one interviews in which they describe each other. Singer-guitarist Ed Robertson is the responsible one. Lead singer Steven Page is unpredictable. Drummer Tyler Stewart is loud. Bassist Jim Creeggan is dedicated.

They also choose their favorite "Sesame Street" characters, which seems a bit contrived, but is amusing. (Robertson likes Ernie. Stewart prefers Oscar the Grouch.)

The guys spend a lot of time in front of the camera discussing how they got together and what inspires their often bizarre lyrics. A sample: "Watchin' `X-Files' with no lights on/ We're dans la maison/ I hope the Smoking Man's in this one." But we learn more about the Barenaked Ladies just by watching them joke around.

They have fun onstage and off, and you get the sense that's how they really are; they're not being witty because a camera is rolling. These are not moody, tortured artists. They are talented performers in a happy pop band who don't take themselves too seriously.

One fan interviewed on the street says the group members "look like guys you'd see working at The GAP."

Also revealing is the way they handle the cancer diagnosis of keyboardist Kevin Hearn. Just as the band starts to find success in the United States, Hearn learns he has leukemia. They find a temporary replacement for him in Chris Brown, but steadfastly support Hearn and promise that his spot will be waiting for him. When Hearn gets better, he makes an emotional return to play a few songs at a Buffalo concert.

The film is a great showcase for Page's vocal talent. He has a textured, powerful voice, and his animated stage performance makes him even more dynamic. He and Robertson, who grew up together in Toronto, play beautifully off each other, often composing entire songs spontaneously in the middle of concerts.

"Barenaked in America" also lets Priestley show he can direct. He already proved he could act in 1997's "Love and Death on Long Island." Here, his timing and pacing prove he's more than just a pretty face.

"Barenaked in America" is part of the Shooting Gallery Film Series. It is not rated but contains language, some nudity and raunchy humor.

Running time: 90 minutes.