David Byrne may have alluded to the idea of singing in tongues, but Lisa Gerrard really does it. Her group, Dead Can Dance, brings together so many vaguely recognizable exotic musical elements--the Celtic and Middle Eastern, principally--that it's easy to presume she's more of a multilinguist than she is, at least when she stops singing in English and her powerful, Arabic-sounding alto gets a bit vague. Just think of it as etherealist scat.
In some of the interview footage moderately sprinkled throughout "Toward the Within"--a new concert movie documenting a Dead Can Dance performance at Santa Monica's Mayfair Theatre last year--Gerrard spreads the gospel of freedom through glossalalia:
"Because people are desperately trying to find a way of releasing themselves from this fleshy prison," she says, "they turn to you when they see you escaping momentarily and think, 'How did you get out?' And it's very easy--let the language grow by itself, your own language. You have the ability to, through arts, through tongues . . . travel to places more beautiful than we're ever promised."
Yep, it's a "head" movie, all right, in the great midnight cinema tradition. Not that director Mark Magidson does anything the slightest bit flashy in documenting the show; the cuts are nearly imperceptible, the staging far from psychedelic.
But only a few of Dead Can Dance's 14 represented numbers settle into any sort of musical literalism. Their melting pot of Chinese dulcimers, Irish bouzouki, uillean pipes, whistles, guitars, goblet drums and mellifluous caterwauling will, with little provocation, take you to that beautiful language- and culture-transcendent place . . . or, if you're not a Dead-head, make you very, very sleepy.
The film (also just out on VHS and laser disc, for the non-theatrically inclined) modestly lets the band sell itself--and that'll be a hard sell to non-fans, given the lack of visual dynamics. (Among seven musicians on stage, only the jumpy timpani player moves around much, even in the more propulsive, percussion-heavy sections.)
But, at the risk of seeming too taciturn for cinematic translation, Dead founders Gerrard and Brendan Perry don't need to dance to suggest the benefits of "transmigration" (as Perry puts it, speaking of the Irish death ballads the band covers amid its less traditional originals). The fleshiness is weak, but their spirit is perked along by Gerrard's trilling.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It is a concert movie suitable for all. 'Toward the Within'
Featuring Dead Can Dance: Lisa Gerrard, Brendan Perry. Additional musicians Lance Hogan, Andrew Claxton, John Bonnar, Ronan O'Snodaish, Robert Perry.
A 4AD presentation. Director Mark Magidson. Producer Alton Walpole. Executive producers Robin Hurley, Ivo Watts-Russell. Cinematographer David Aubrey. Editors Magidson, Aubrey. Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes.
* In limited release at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500.