Seated comfortably on his sofa, Judge Dennis Prince was convinced he was starring in a Circuit City commercial as he heard "Just What I Needed" while adjusting the playback of this DVD.
I don't mind you comin' here,
Despite the arguably dour lyrics, "Just What I Needed," the debut song from Boston-area band The Cars, proved not to be a waste of time at all, but rather the harbinger of an impressive hit-laden cruise along the avenue of success. Seen as an overachieving upstart of sorts, the edgy yet streamlined sound of The Cars was the sort that came along—almost magically—at a moment so precise that it assured them an audience and a fast following. Their uncanny timing and unusual sleek style—musically and individually—would make them late-'70s and '80s hit makers with a catalog of songs that still enjoy immediate recognition nearly three decades later.
I guess you're just what I needed…
A project mounted by the band's original mastermind, Ric Ocasek (say that, "oh-KASS-ik"), The Cars Unlocked presents a sort of "hard day's night" view of the band through a tuck-and-roll collection of rare film, video, and audio elements. Although largely disjointed in nature, the DVD program, edited by Ocasek's son Eron, offers an oddly coherent look into the trimmings and trappings of pop-rock stardom.
The DVD begins with a disclaimer regarding the uneven quality of the rare material on tap here, citing it as vintage videotape and, therefore, not up to the digital standards we take for granted today. Nevertheless, the content presented isn't in any sort of dire condition. Quite the opposite, it has a general quality that is reasonable given its source (and benefiting from being played on a competent up-converting player, FYI) with the audio elements clearly re-mastered to eke out every bit of information possible. Therefore, while these aren't reference quality artifacts, they're important and properly pleasing considering the challenges.
The material on tap ranges from crude hand-held video "home movies" to video capture of concert performances, either by the band's own crew or as made available by venue staff. With jerky views of airport concourses, faraway looks at limo drop-offs, and up-close encounters at backstage food tables, you'll see the different band members mulling, mugging, and often meditating on the effects of their success and the manner in which it has obviously affected their lives.
Although they're clearly a quintet committed to the quality of their music, they appear to be more than unimpressed by their own success and enviable renown. It's likely they consciously adopted a persona as new wave artists who are blithe in the acknowledgement of their achievements and the fandom garnered, all received with eyes half open and only occasional wry utterances. Interestingly, the result of their eclectic nonchalance was often mistaken as boredom. Bored they were not. More accurately, they demonstrated a remarkable deftness in the manner they internalized and exploited their success, a way that never spoiled them, neither collectively nor individually.
From the unexpected success of their eponymous first album, released in 1978, through the pinnacle of their 1984 commercial masterpiece, Heartbeat City, The Cars stayed true to their sound and true to their fans, until their disbanding following the badly timed and worse received Door to Door of 1987. Without apparent acrimony, the members went their separate ways, some to record solo albums of their own (Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr, Elliot Easton, Greg Hawkes). Despite rumors of a pending reunion circa 1995, the regrouping never happened. Sadly, the tremendously talented and impossibly handsome Benjamin Orr lost a battle with pancreatic cancer in October 2000. Since then, Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes teamed up with new front man Todd Rundgren (competently channeling Ocasek's vocal style), Kasim Sulton (Utopia), and Prairie Prince (The Tubes) to form The New Cars, a tribute band of sorts with a definite relevant edge, to log subsequent chapters in The Cars' illustrious history. Ric Ocasek chose not to participate, electing to produce other band's work and dig up the material found on this DVD.
Having never heard the Cars perform live prior to viewing this DVD, I was impressed with their tight delivery and faithful renditions of their studio material. From accurate tempos, spot-on vocal inflections, and all the fills you love to mimic on your air-guitar, the Cars do proper justice to their catalog of titles and give fans a performance they can sing and play along to. To wit:
• My Best Friend's Girl
As noted, since the content is from various original vintage sources, the image quality varies somewhat during the 4:3 full frame presentation. It never becomes difficult to watch, but it will make you wish digital capture was available at the time—softness, grain, and video pops occurring with relative frequency. The audio performs significantly better, provided via a well-produced Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that never sounds forced or phony, instead providing a nicely balanced soundstage that does proper justice to the music and vocals. There's a PCM 2.0 Stereo alternative track if that's more to your liking.
The keepcase isn't the typical Amaray type, but, pleasantly, is a hardbound album inside an embossed slipcase. The album/book opens to reveal the DVD tucked inside a front cover flap, followed by 28 pages of glossy color and black and white pages filled with band photos interspersed with song lyrics. Kudos go to Docurama for giving the edition a classy feel. Extras on the DVD include five bonus performances ("Cruiser," "Strap Me In," "Drive," "Touch and Go," and "Everything You Say") plus a DVD trailer for the disc.
In the back cover flap you'll find a bonus CD that offers audio-only versions of the DVD performances, provided in an ear-friendly continuity for a total of 56-minutes of live Cars entertainment. Specifically, the numbers you'll hear are as follows:
All told, The Cars Unlocked arrives as a highly welcome time capsule, classic in feel and audibly fine-tuned. If there is a disappointment, it's that there isn't more biographical material on board. Of course, this could signal another release that might lift the hood and give fans—young and old—a chance to look over the engine that powered this impressive new wave vehicle.
Highly recommended and definitely not guilty, especially not of any moving violation.
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