Must See Music TV: Elvis Costello's Spectacle

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The mainstream media have given Elvis Costello’s new talk show on the Sundance Channelbit of press, most of it assuming viewers can’t process anything subtler or more sophisticated than an episode of MTV’s Rock the Cradle, but Spectacle demands an unabashed rave. Featuring a rough mix of laid-back, consequently revelatory interviews and flat-out stunning performances from Costello and his guests–who have included Elton John, Lou Reed, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheny, and James Taylor–it’s a gloriously unorthodox “talk show” for people who dig music for music’s sake and draw inspiration from the creative process. In other words, it’s not for everyone–which is why it’s on cable, worth every penny your provider will bilk you for, and probably won’t be around for a season or two. Such is always the fate of tuned-up television. Remember Night Music? How about Stars of Jazz? That’s what I thought.

Make no mistake about it, Costello comes to his subjects as a fan, treats them as vocational peers, and is deeply steeped in pop, rock, and jazz history. So, yeah, as some critics have complained, the musical references can get a bit arcane from time to time. But it’s the rhythm of the conversation as much as the questions and answers that fascinates. You actually feel like you’re seeing a real person ruminate on their craft with a pal, as opposed to an interview subject jousting with (or avoiding) a half-witted, smart-ass host or pitching a project. Plus, a bit of musical history could do the world a lot of good. After all, there’s no rule that a person can’t learn a little something while parked in front of the boob tube.

Best of all, this intimate, somewhat sycophantic atmosphere has so far facilitated inspired performances from all involved: Costello and Reed in perfect pitch on the latter’s “Set the Twilight Reeling,” a soulful Taylor crooning about his “Sweet Baby James,” and Haden and Metheny serenading guest Bill Clinton with the tear-jerker, “Is This America? (Katrina 2005).”

There are nine episodes left, featuring the likes of Tony Bennett, Rufus Wainwright, and the Police. And while watching to see whether Costello can find his way around Sting’s titanic head promises to be memorable, it will be hard to beat the season’s highlight so far: filmmaker Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), scotch in hand, reciting the lyrics of Reed’s “Rock Minuet” like a lost poet.

“In the back of the warehouse were a couple of guys/They had tied someone up and sewn up their eyes/And he got so excited he came on his thighs/When they danced to the rock minuet.”

Now, watch every night if you like. But you ain’t going to hear spoken word like that on Leno.

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