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Barenaked in America

By TOM SIME, The Dallas Morning News, September 29th 2000.

For rock stars, the Barenaked Ladies seem remarkably civilized. Not so the director of Barenaked in America, Jason Priestley, who's reportedly been showing up drunk on talk shows to promote his documentary.

In serving the fans of this oddball Canadian band, however, Mr. Priestley was on his best behavior. The Barenaked Ladies' popularity has spread from their native land, where they first made a splash with the indie novelty hit "Be My Yoko Ono" in 1991, to the U.S., where they started selling enough records in the late '90s to justify the 1998 arena tour Mr. Priestley has recorded on film.

For the uninitiated, however, there will be dull moments in this 89-minute valentine, as when Mr. Priestley has the members wax eloquent on their favorite characters from Sesame Street. ("Ernie is sublime.")

Non-fans should know, first, that they'll have to put up with that kind of nonsense. Second, that the band is made up of five men; there are no ladies. If there were even female groupies around, we don't see them; the movie is tailored to the bandmates' wives as well as their fans.

And the members talk a lot about spending time au naturel on their tour bus, but the movie's onscreen nudity is limited to flashing by eager fans.

That is, unless you count an early scene in which we see singer-guitarist Ed Robertson sitting on the toilet. Even this is discreet, however; Mr. Robertson's hair goes from blond to brown throughout the movie, and the shot gives no clue as to which is his natural color.

When the Barenaked Ladies get to playing, their talent is unmistakable, even if their energetic frat-party sound - "happy music," says one fan - can be repetitive.

Primary singer Steven Page, a husky, high-jumping powerhouse, is spellbinding to watch, and when the guys improvise tunes on stage, their knack for spontaneity is impressive. Their easygoing, peace-loving camaraderie is genuinely charming.

Another unusual and bold touch is a montage of disparaging comments from detractors ("I think they suck. I hate them with a passion," says one).

Only good sports would allow that sequence. But in one strategic error, the film lays out the saga of member Kevin Hearn's struggle with leukemia almost immediately, before we've heard a single tune. This may tug at fans' hearts, but instant medical crisis is not the way to introduce the group to the uninitiated.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but a lot of the time, fiction is more fun. For a grand rock 'n' roll road movie, the better bet is Almost Famous. But if you can't get Barenaked enough, put this on.