Judge Adam Arseneau likes cigarettes and chocolate milk.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle may be the best songwriting duo you've never heard of. A Canadian tsunami of folk music, the elderly pair have kicked out jams for over thirty years, earning critical acclaim and admiring praise from fellow musicians. They also spawn prodigious musical talent. Their two offspring trade under their father's name, which you may have heard of before: Wainwright, as in Rufus and Martha.
A Not So Silent Night is part musical concert, part home video family reunion, bringing the McGarrigle sisters and their musically inclined family and friends onstage at New York's Knitting Factory for a night of Christmas carols, both traditional and new. The DVD includes the following songs:
• "Old Waits Carol"
The McGarrigle clan come out in force here: Kate and Anna, the eponymous songwriting duo, their two children, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, both successful songwriters and entertainers in their own right. They are joined by a cast of friends including Justin Bond, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Emmylou Harris, as well as a dozen or so unnamed musical players who shuffle onstage now and again with brass instruments and other noisemakers. It's a packed stage.
Almost all the performances are played with sheet music and lyrics slapped right in the face of its participants. We don't even get eye contact with the singers—they just sit down on a stool, face glued to a music stand. As entertaining performances go, this is a pretty awkward affair. The performances quirky and folksy, but seriously lacking in the energy department, with only a few genuine moments that approach actual entertainment, like Martha's frenetic cover of "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses, a song so fabulously out of place as to be delightful.
Far too much of A Not So Silent Night feels like watching some other family's home videos (worse, ones of them singing) and it's just plain awkward to sit through. The McGarrigle clan is a fantastic musical talent, every single one of them, but there's no theatrical sense of joy here, no crowd reaction, no vibrancy or enthusiasm. There is no subtext here; you press play, unnamed people are onstage singing, the film awkwardly cuts from song to song, editing out all interactions between audience and crowd, and then the film ends. It is almost painfully dull to sit through. Fans of the McGarrigles' music should find it palatable, but for most mainstream viewers, this set list is a snoozer of irritating folk rendition carols.
Speaking of snooze, this DVD is a drag. The band is on stage, and the camera is in front of the band, and someone hits record. There is no polish or production values, no fantastic mix or surround presentation—just a blasé transfer and a stereo track. A Not So Silent Night was clearly recorded for posterity, not for mass distribution. Video quality is flat and muted in color tones, but clean and detailed with some close-up shots of faces coming out satisfactory. Audio is underwhelming, with a timid-sounding mix that sacrifices punch and authority for tonal preservation; call it meekly balanced. I hate to be a sarcastic git, but the technical presentation matches the live performance itself—safe and boring.
Extras are average; we get some home video footage of the family circa 1985 (again with the home video thing) and a small smattering of interviews with the sisters discussing the songs, the origins of the Christmas concerts, and the participants. All told the running time clocks in at just under an hour.
People are willing to pay money for a good concert DVD, especially one packed with this much talent, but nobody is going to pay money to watch someone else's home videos, no matter how much musical talent they have. A Not So Silent Night feels too much like attending someone else's family reunion—you have no idea who anyone is, no one is introducing you, leaving you in the corner alone with a watered-down drink, looking sullen—and then they break out the piano.
An awkward affair for all involved. For serious fans only.
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