Quantcast
subscriber help

artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Barenaked in America (review)

Meet the Ladies

They’re not naked and they’re not ladies — they’re music geeks from the Great White North. The slightly folky, mostly alt-rock Barenaked Ladies are nothing new to anyone who listens to NPR, but most people don’t, so when their single “One Week” stormed mainstream radio a few years ago, BNL became your typical overnight sensation ten years in the making. They’re fun and they’re funny, these five Canadian non-nude guys, and they have a talent for creating songs that, depending on your predilection for edgy whimsy, will either delight you or drive you insane. But do they deserve a documentary? Barenaked in America doesn’t quite convince me they do.
Actor turned director Jason Priestly, a longtime friend of the band and an award-winning director of one of their videos, takes his cameras along on BNL’s 1998 tour of America to promote their album Stunt. It’s their first full-blown invasion of America — BNL is playing in huge arenas they’d never have filled previously, and they are feted wherever they go, from Boston throwing them an outdoor concert party to celebrate their arrival to the Philadelphia Flyers inviting them to sing the national anthem. In New York they appear on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, allowing Priestly to snag snidely clever backhand tributes to the band from O’Brien and cohost Andy Richter as well as fellow guests Jeff Goldblum and Jon Stewart.

Smart, low-key humor is BNL’s trademark, both onstage, with tunes like “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Who Needs Sleep?”, and off — singer/guitarist Steven Page feigns amazement at how “nice,” and how like Canadians, Americans are. But the backstage banter Priestly captures is a little forced at times — the band members know they’re on camera, and they’re performing for it. Their penchant for toilet humor and typical guy gross-out chatter — from joking en masse about finding privacy on their tour bus for whacking off to singer/guitarist Ed Robertson griping about his athlete’s foot — may be exaggerated for the camera, but it stops being more than mildly amusing very quickly, especially when you’re waiting for something meatier about the band to finally be revealed.

Barenaked in America wants to be an incisive diary of the band-meets-world trials of BNL, like a true-life Almost Famous, but the guys — Page, Robertson, drummer Tyler Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan, and keyboardist Kevin Hearn — seem to be handling fame and fortune with rare equanimity. Perhaps it’s precisely because director Priestly is an old friend that we see absolutely no conflict amongst the band members; perhaps he wanted to portray his pals in the best light possible. Or maybe BNL all do actually love one another and welcome the massive changes in their lives. Either way, the result is a documentary spectacularly lacking in drama. Even Hearn’s serious illness, which forced him to miss much of the Stunt tour, is, if not exactly dismissed by Priestly and the other BNLs, at least placed on the same level as all the “retarded stuff” (like animation) the band added to spice up their arena shows. Hearn was sick; he got well — Barenaked Ladies did just fine without him, but welcomed him back warmly. It’s a terrible thing to say about real people, but couldn’t these guys hate one another just a bit?

Robertson and Page, the Paul McCartney and John Lennon of Barenaked Ladies, have a remarkable talent for improvising songs together onstage, songs that leave audiences convinced they were fully planned and rehearsed. But beyond the trite comments about being grade-school friends and a few remarks about the music they listened to as kids, there’s little here attempting to investigate how or why BNL do what they do, what drove them through the ten years of cultish obscurity they traveled to mainstream success and fame, or even why fans appreciate them. Their manager waxes rhapsodic about how unique BNL are, and BNL pat one another on the back over their own wonderfulness — it may be true, but just saying so without any exploratory background doesn’t make for a particularly interesting or insightful documentary.

Barenaked in America is a nice piece of fluff for diehard BNL fans. But anyone looking for real insight into the band, their creative processes, or how fame and fortune affect artists will be sorely disappointed.


MPAA: not rated

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
posted in:
reviews
explore:

Pin It on Pinterest