Judge Russell Engebretson now wonders if life is really like a bowl of cherries or a globe of frogs.
"Food, sex, and death are all these corridors to life, if you like. You need sex to get you here, you need food to keep you here, and you need death to get you out—and they're the entry and exit signs."—Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death…and Insects, directed by John Edginton, was originally aired on the Sundance channel in the United States and BBC4 in the United Kingdom. Anyone who is expecting a concert film or a comprehensive overview of Robyn Hitchcock's musical career will be let down by this short film, which is more akin to a making-of featurette for the 2006 album Olé! Tarantula.
What we do get to see is Hitchcock and his latest band, The Venus 3, rehearsing at his home in West London, followed by snippets of a tour that includes Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and lastly America. The final gig is at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. In between the truncated performances—none of the songs are shown in their entirety—Hitchcock discusses his approach to songwriting, indulges in a bit of candid self-analysis, and delves into what has driven and sustained his 30-year-plus career in the music business.
His band mates are a diverse crew of rock, folk, and pop virtuosos: R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin, and bassist Scott McCaughey as the core band, with guest appearances from pop maven Nick Lowe, folksinger extraordinaire Gillian Welch, and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (playing a mandolin!). Despite his cult status, it's clear that a wide range of musical colleagues admire Robyn Hitchcock as a singer, songwriter, and performer.
Hitchcock's lyrics are buttressed by an endearing, questioning tenor voice that rises and falls languorously, like a gently rolling wave. His vivid imaginings of frogs, insects, skeletons, rockets, love and loss, keep the listener constantly off balance. His music seems intuitive rather than studied (an illusion that true artists always manage to pull off with aplomb), propelled by an intricate structure of surreal versifying hung on a simple tune, sometimes sung round a single chord that seems to take minutes to move on the rest of the chord progression. Hitchcock professes admiration for Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, and William Borroughs; but while one can certainly hear echoes of those artists in his tunes, Hitchcock has fashioned his own unique sound. At its best, the music is mesmerizing, emotional, enigmatic, and as slippery to hold on to as a wriggling fish.
Because of his odd lyrics, Hitchcock sometimes has to defend himself against press accusations of being a strange fellow. I never thought he was any stranger than the usual smart, creative person (ordinariness is highly overrated anyway). On this video he makes the admission that, "At heart I'm a frightened, angry person. That's probably why my stuff isn't totally insubstantial. I'm constantly deep down inside in a kind of a rage, and I imagine a lot of people are. It's part of being socialized, but not being socialized properly; so there's a hard core, and then on top I have this slightly whimsical, slightly academic detachment sprinkled with a patina of rock and roll mannerisms I picked up over the years. The real me is just screaming; that's why I keep going." Sounds like a typical self-analytical human being to me.
Audio is sadly a lame Dolby mono soundtrack—not surprising since the video was first aired on television—but still a disappointment for a musically oriented documentary. The video won't win any awards either, but once again it is just a videotaped documentary and perfectly watchable.
One of the extras—the best out of three—presents rough versions of four songs as played solo by Hitchcock on an acoustic steel string guitar, but it also includes his insightful ruminations on lyric writing, song structure, and some practical aspects of the creative impulse. The other two extras are a home video of an informal rooftop performance and a professional music video of "Adventure Rocketship."
I don't know how this DVD will play for those unacquainted with the quirky musical charms of Robyn Hitchcock. It will more likely appeal to longtime fans, although I hate to discourage a potential viewer who might discover the sterling talent of this much neglected singer/songwriter. He deserves a wider audience, and this short documentary could possibly reel in a few new listeners for him. On balance, it's probably worth a rental even for the uninitiated.
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Scales of Justice
• Rough Versions of "Evolve," "John in the Air," "Stars of Venus," and "Afterlight"
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