Barenaked in AmericaBy SEAN MEANS, Film.com
Barenaked Ladies might just be the best rock band working today. It's not just because they combine catchy melodies with sharply satirical lyrics, or because they have built a loyal fan base, or because they took America by storm with the album "Stunt" and its catchy single "One Week."
No, this Canadian quintet proves their talent by surviving a haphazard rock-documentary, Barenaked in America, with their musical brilliance intact.
The movie follows the band on the northeast leg of its 1998 "Stunt Show" tour, catching the band members' good humor backstage, on the tour bus and in cities - chatting with tourists in front of the White House, or hanging with Conan O'Brien after appearing on his show. There are a few odd archival clips, like the band's first appearance on MuchMusic (the Canadian MTV) or a freakily funny bit on an Anne Murray Christmas special. A few brief interviews with fans show the strong link the band has with its listeners, including the odd and sometimes dangerous tradition of audience members throwing macaroni-and-cheese mix at the stage (when a lyric in "If I Had $1,000,000'' mentions Kraft dinners).
The concert footage, mostly shot at a show in Buffalo, captures the band at its best. Page's soaring tenor, Robertson's funky raps, the manic drumming of Tyler Stewart and bassist Jim Creeggan's otherworldly rhythms all get their moments in the spotlight. Also shown are moments of free-form improvising - Robertson and Page can rhyme anything, and the band's show-ending medleys can combine N'Sync choreography, "Sesame Street'' references and Celine Dion to startling comic effect.
All five members are interviewed extensively, with frontmen Steven Page and Ed Robertson rhapsodizing about musicianship, and keyboardist Kevin Hearn describing his battle with leukemia (diagnosed just before the tour began). Alas, director and fellow Canadian Jason Priestley, trying to earn street cred after years of "Beverly Hills 90210," has the band talking too much. Interview snippets intercut every single song, overtaking the band's tricky lyrics like the regret-filled absurdity of "Alcohol,'' the reincarnation humor of "It's All Been Done" or the psychological wanderings of "Brian Wilson.'' (The only song that doesn't get interrupted is a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," performed at a Philadelphia Flyers game.)
Priestley cannot decide what kind of rock-documentary he wants to make - a musical road picture like U2: Rattle and Hum, a backstage-pass expose like The Last Waltz, or a live-music experience like Stop Making Sense. Barenaked in America ends up a little bit of all three, but never enough of any of them to be satisfying. This is a band that deserves better.