There's something both very endearing and unsettling about Laurie Anderson--one critic recently dubbed the pop performance artist a "punk Shirley Temple." With her wide eyes, rubbery limbs and androgynous appearance, she sometimes looks like a creature cooked up by some wacky alien scientist who'd gulped a little too much helium.
Anderson's new concert film, "Home of the Brave" (at selected theaters) occasionally captures this pixilated spirit, especially when she dons her "drum suit," which allows her to play a rambunctious percussion solo with various parts of her body serving as an amplified drum kit. Unfortunately, the film never really capitalizes on these fleeting moments of inspiration.
In fact, her dazzling versatility--she's a popster, social critic, stand-up clown, dancer and musician all rolled into one--is largely what keeps "Home of the Brave" from establishing any dramatic momentum.
Anderson is so busy showing off her electronic wizardry that we never feel any sense of intimacy or identification with her performances. There's no doubt that her music captures the dreamy sound of the spheres--she even walks around the stage with a giddily weightless gait, as if she were stepping on a trail of massive pillows. But this film floats into such a deep-space trance that after a while you're dying for a jolt--a meteor shower or some heavy-metal thunder--to break up Anderson's dreary musings.
Shot before a live audience over 10 days last summer at the Park Theatre in New Jersey, "Home" features Anderson performing with a stellar ensemble of musicians, including guitarist Adrian Belew, saxophonist Richard Landry, percussionist David Van Tieghem and vocalists Dolette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis. Most of the music and monologues are new, though many of the compositions draw heavily on familiar Anderson themes, especially her uneasy rapport with technology.
Occasionally the film neatly captures her brainy, cartoon imagination, most notably during an eerie funk tune with a William S. Burroughs epigram--"Language is a virus from outer space"--as a soulful refrain. She also pulls off a buoyant set piece that transforms the stage into an "Alice in Wonderland"-style circus, with Anderson's image reflected in a fun-house mirror while band members bounce on trampolines, play rubber-necked guitars and waltz around on stilts.
Most of the time, however, the band stands rooted to the stage, forcing Anderson to provide all the excitement. Though she's concocted a wealth of video backdrops, they never seem to cast a spell. You almost wish that she had collaborated with someone with more dynamic ideas--like video directors Zbigniew Rybczynski or Godley and Creme--who could have given the film a heftier dose of visual electricity and highlighted her loopy sense of humor.
"Home of the Brave"(Times-rated Mature) may have been designed to expose Anderson to a broader audience, but it has little of the visual expressiveness or understated elegance of a concert film, such as the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense." As it stands, this film only reminds us of how much Anderson has achieved with so few new ideas. Seeing her wander across the stage and hearing her violin's space-age drone, you begin to wonder if you're watching a real pop shaman or just a high-tech Stevie Nicks.
'HOME OF THE BRAVE' A Cinecom International Films release. Producer Paula Mazur. Director Laurie Anderson. Writer Anderson. Camera John Lindley. Editor Lisa Day. Music Anderson. Artistic director Perry Hoberman. Production design David Gropman. Costume design Susan Hilferty. With Anderson, Joy Askew, Adrian Belew, Richard Landry, Dolette McDonald, Janice Pendarvis, Sang Won Park, David Van Tieghem, and William S. Burroughs.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).