Judge Jonathan Weiss takes on Tracey taking on this concert performance film taking on—wait, I think I got carried away.
"You've been around for such a long time now
Theatre is theatre, and film is film. And yet there are times when the two art forms merge in such a way that both the film and the theatre audience share the same kind of magic. This can be said, for instance, about the late Richard Pryor's incredibly electric and mesmerizing trilogy of stand-up performances: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), and to a lesser degree Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983).
Overall though, theatrical performances lose something when translated to film. Maybe it's the lack of intimacy or maybe it's the very nature of film itself; by taking the live out of the live performance it can be argued that film removes the very spontaneity it is trying to capture.
Add to that the extra hands involved with a filmed production, from the camera crew to the editor, and instead of allowing the audience to make their own decisions in how they wish to experience a production, they are instead manipulated into how someone else wishes them to experience it. It takes a very special crew to film a live performance and to give it the respect it deserves and the room it needs in order to maintain its integrity.
Tracey Ullman—Live and Exposed is a performance film that takes the audience sitting in the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles on a very entertaining ride. There is no doubt that they enjoyed themselves enormously. But can the same be said for the viewers at home?
Facts of the Case
Tracey Ullman recounts the ups and downs of her varied career, starting as a 9-year-old performing for her mother's amusement and going all the way up to the present time.
Tracey Ullman hits the stage singing her North American hit from 1984, "They Don't Know," which is only fitting on a career retrospective, since this is how most of us were first introduced to her.
The show really starts, however, when Tracey takes us back to when she is a precocious 9 years old. The defining moment in her young life is when her father passes away. Sad, confused, and lacking any sort of emotional counseling, she takes to creating shows for her mother at bedtime in order to lift both their spirits. She sings, dances, and creates spot on impersonations of neighbourhood characters. And when her mother draws the curtain on her performance and sends her to bed she continues on her own in front of her bedroom mirror.
From there Tracey takes us on the journey of her life and career as an entertainer ,which really begins when a woman with self-described psychic abilities tells the young Tracey that she can see a bright star above her head that symbolizes the fame and success she is destined to enjoy—especially in America.
Memorable scenes along that journey to American success include enrollment into a school for talented youngsters (at least talented in the eyes of their parents), the myriad of audition tryouts that culminates in a trip to Berlin for an all-German rendition of Gigi, and her first trip to the States where she is suddenly exposed to new personalities that become a huge part of her repertoire.
As a newfound American citizen Tracey finds love, gets married, and has two children—working sporadically on everything from movie cameos to her short-lived self-titled television show. If you're unfamiliar with the show itself you're probably very familiar with the family she helped introduce to the world through short vignettes. Their name was The Simpsons—maybe you've heard of them.
The most impressive display of Ms. Ullman's talent, however, is when she explains how she knows when its time to go back to work after every break. To demonstrate how her imagination begins to take control, practically begging for an outlet, she walks over to a trunk and begins pulling out all the different wigs she wears when portraying all the different characters she has adopted throughout her career. What follows is an incredible display of mimicry, improvisation, and yes, acting. Tracey doesn't merely impersonate voices; she inhabits them, rendering them complete, three dimensional beings. Remarkable.
The show wraps up as it began, with Tracey singing 'They Don't Know' and acknowledging that everything she has become has a direct link back to her mother's bedroom, where she performed all those many years ago.
Tracey Ullman—Live and Exposed is staged simply. Sets are kept to a minimum. The only mainstay is a life-sized screen framed like a painting, in which different photographs from Tracey's life appear, including baby pictures, press clippings, theatrical reviews, album covers, and other images of relevance. Props are promptly wheeled out on stage during a lightening fast change of costume (consisting usually of a different wig and maybe a skirt or blouse velcroed over her existing outfit). Except for some additional dancers, all of whom play different silent characters, it is all about Tracey.
The most disconcerting aspect of the filmed show is the editing and camera work. It is obvious that the director and editor decided they didn't want to lock off the camera front row centre and just let Tracey do her stuff. Shame. Instead, we find ourselves whisked up to the balcony every so often for no apparent reason or off to stage left or right just long enough to wonder what the heck is happening. If it's true what they say about the best camera and editing work being that which goes unnoticed then this, quite obviously, is not it.
Alas, HBO has again deemed extras a nuisance—nothing here to see except the show and scene selection. True, it's the show that everybody is here to see, but when one considers what might have been then it all becomes even more depressing. Imagine a commentary track using one or several of Tracey's characters. Or picture a short making of feature detailing why Tracey decided to do this show in the first place. It's obvious that the live audience left the show completely satisfied. It's a shame the same cannot be said for the home audience.
Tracey Ullman—Live and Exposed is an entertaining romp through the life and career of an extraordinary talent. Watching it one realizes that it would have been enough to lock the camera off and stick to full-figure, medium, and close up shots instead of trying to invent new ways to thrust the audience into an epileptic seizure-like frenzy. Finally, HBO needs to begin respecting their home market a lot more and stop producing discs that make Karen Carpenter look bloated.
Overall, unless you're a complete Tracey-oholic, a rental should be more than satisfactory.
For the audience sitting in the Henry Fonda Theatre—not guilty. For the audience sitting at home—a suspended sentence so long as whoever is watching adores Ms. Ullman so much that they do not mind choppy editing and a barebones disc. HBO—guilty as charged for yet another sickening display of sloth when it comes to providing DVDs with nothing in the way of extras even when a wealth of possibilities are right in front them.
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