Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees can't sit still when she hears "Something Got Me Started"—which made writing this review tricky.
"This was a career-defining album in the manner of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, one that embodied the essence of the man who made it."—Michael Heatley
Stars was well titled. This 1991 album from Simply Red dominated record sales in the band's native England, trouncing such mighty competition as U2 and Michael Jackson and ultimately becoming one of the all-time top sellers in English musical history. Consisting entirely of songs penned by vocalist and band cornerstone Mick Hucknall, it proved that the band didn't have to rely for hits on covers of established songs, like their earlier success "If You Don't Know Me By Now." The awards it garnered were further proof that Simply Red was simply stellar.
Now Eagle Rock's Classic Albums series takes us behind the scenes and inside the making of this classic recording. Combining concert footage, new studio and performance footage, and clips from music videos with new interviews with the band members and producers as well as other members of the music industry, Simply Red: Stars gives us the complete skinny on how Stars came about. It's a lively and meaty program that gives us a good introduction to the band—including a discussion of its breakthrough hit "Holding Back the Years," a throwback to American '70s soul—and how its lineup changed for the recording of Stars. It's also bracingly honest about the remorseless way core member Mick Hucknall jettisoned early band mates to recruit what he felt was the best possible talent for the sound he wanted to create. "I've always believed you've got to be ruthless for the music," he explains, after we've heard from the bitter former drummer who was replaced by Gota Yoshika. "The music is what makes me ruthless." Indeed, it's hard to reproach him for bringing on board such talented folk as Yoshika and guitarist Heitor Peirera (who has gone on to solo projects like scoring Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights).
Even more interesting than the background on the composition of the band is the inside story on how the songs on the album were written and arranged. Mick explains the origins of many of the Stars songs, including "For Your Babies," "Wonderland," "Model," and "Your Mirror." Record producer Stewart Levine takes us into the studio to show us how the songs are arranged, demonstrating on the groovalicious "Something Got Me Started" how each song is built layer by layer atop the vocal track. It's fascinating to hear the song put together piece by piece and to learn what intention lay behind each component; this part of the program definitely gave me a new appreciation for the work that went into the album and also enabled me to distinguish the contributions of the different musicians. Although it's hard to overlook the agile keyboard stylings of Fritz McIntyre, for example, I'd never properly appreciated Peirera's glittering guitar work before. We also find out how the Gulf War changed the process of recording Stars and hear about Hucknall's often troubled relationship with the media. There's scarcely a wasted moment in the program. The only weakness in the content is the decision to focus so extensively on "Holding Back the Years," which significantly predates the Stars album, especially when three songs from Stars aren't discussed at all: "She's Got It Bad," "How Could I Fall," and "Freedom."
Although video quality is clean, it's the audio quality for this feature that really matters, and this is by and large excellent. All the music comes through with handsome clarity and robust breadth, although the dynamism of the footage shot in the studio slightly surpasses that of the concert clips. The new in-studio recordings are so lifelike and immersive that it's hard to believe this isn't a 5.1 or DTS audio mix. Particular standouts are the new acoustic performances of "For Your Babies" and "Wonderland," featuring Hucknall accompanied on piano; these are downright crystalline, and we hear every reverberation of Hucknall's vocals. These tracks are definite highlights among the extras and will make this disc a must-have for fans of these songs.
The other extra content on the disc is classified as additional interview footage, but these are actually fully edited and polished segments that could easily be part of the main program. I suspect they were simply cut to make the program leaner, which was a wise decision, since they would have slowed down the documentary rather substantially. At the same time, it's great to have sequences such as "Frantic Elevators—Roger Eagle," which unveils Mick Hucknall's musical beginnings in a Manchester punk band, and "Joining Simply Red," in which various band members recount how they came to work with Hucknall. "Recording 'Stars'" offers a breakdown of this track similar to the one for "Something Got Me Started," so that we can see how the arrangement was built up, and also offers comments on the album as a whole. "Stewart Levine—'Holding Back the Years'" sandwiches a concert performance of this early hit with discussion of producer Levine's influence on Hucknall. This sequence and the "Frantic Elevators" one both help elucidate how Hucknall came to develop his taste for early R&B, a taste that has been a fundamental part of Simply Red's sound. All together, the extras nearly double the documentary's running time of 48 minutes (not 90, as the case claims). In addition, an information-packed essay by Michael Heatley is included as a case insert.
This is the first of the Classic Albums discs that I've seen, even though the series started in 1997, and I'm genuinely impressed. After watching Simply Red: Stars I have a much better understanding of what made this band such an unusual phenomenon, as well as how their unique sound came to be. It's a terrific introduction to the group for fans who only know them from their hit singles, and it offers lots of fun inside dirt even for music lovers who are longtime followers of Hucknall and his music. It also manages to maintain a lively, involving pace without resorting to choppy editing or gimmicky camera work. My hat's off to Eagle Rock—and my feet are itchin' to dance.
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