Barenaked in America
review by Dan Lybarger, 29 September 2000

A few minutes into Barenaked in America, singer-guitarist Eric Robertson of the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies greets the audience perched on top of a toilet. Despite the title and the provocative opening, this rockumentary winds up being not nearly as revealing as promised.

Director Jason Priestley (best known for starring on Beverly Hills 90210) follows the band during their 1998 tour for the album Stunt. The year was especially eventful for Barenaked Ladies because they scored their first number one hit in the U.S. with the single One Week. Considering the fact that they literally started off on playing on street corners in the early 'ninties, this is no small achievement. Priestly even includes a bizarre clip thatís apparently their video debut. Be My Yoko Ono feature the band crouched to fit a closeup of all of the members into a single shot. Somehow the group managers to play well despite the claustrophobic environment. They also project a kind of goofy charm that makes the static clip strangely entertaining.

Since that time, Barenaked Ladies have gone from a Canadian Cult band to a presence on the American charts. They and their music would hardly seem the type to make such a crossover appeal. Their blending of rap, country, rock and catchy pop hooks falls into no easily classifiable genre. The band members themselves are not handsome enough to be teen idols, and while their behavior on stage is often outrageous (bassist Jim Creeggan performed on an Anne Murray Christmas special sporting an interesting shade of lipstick), it is hardly shocking. The group devote large portions of their shows to long jams where Robertson and Steven Page deliver surprisingly tight improvised vocals. In this post-Woodstock age when many bands merely perform mechanical, lip synced rehashes of their hits, the Ladies devotion to spontaneity is refreshing.

Curiously, the musical offerings in Barenaked in America seem a bit scant. Priestley, who is Canadian, devotes too much of the film to the bandís conquest of their neighbors to the south. Much of the talking head commentary about the music scene in the Great White North is dull and not terribly insightful. One particularly needless scene, involves the band members wandering through Washington D.C. asking if the locals have heard of them. While the Ladies seem to find it amusing, the sequence makes them come off as smug jerks. Priestly includes some comments by celebrities like Jeff Goldblum and Jon Stewart, who have little to say about the group. Priestlyís lack of selectivity is especially glaring when the band members excitedly talk about how success has allowed them to incorporate elaborate stage shows. The film shows none of these fancy lighting tricks. For a visual medium like film, this is a wasted opportunity.

Fortunately there are plenty of moments that make this worth a peek, even for the groupís casual fans. One fascinating segment consists of Page arguing with the director of the video for Itís All Been Done. Itís the sort of behind-the-scenes sequence that horrifies most managers and publicists. Thereís also a moving side story about keyboardist Kevin Hearnís battle with leukemia. He leaves the tour to convalesce at the height of the groupís success. The movie ends with him rejoining the group after the successful recovery. The groupís songs during this segment take on a bittersweet edge that thankfully remains genuine. The sight of Hearn jamming with his partners makes up for some drivel that proceeded it.

Directed by:
Jason Priestley

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