Tuesday, 23 June 2015

R.E.M. by MTV

Before sitting down with this film, I hadn’t listened to R.E.M. in a long time. I listen to a hell of a lot of music and go to a lot of live shows, but in recent years since the band’s 2011 split I’d almost forgotten about them. Times change and, as we discover new artists we like, we must put old ones to the back of our minds. R.E.M. were one of the first bands I listened to religiously and loved, and will always have a special place in my heart for that. They have influenced endless artists and gave us some fantastic albums over their 30 years together. When I heard about this documentary, I had to see it. For old time’s sake.

Out now on Blu-Ray & DVD comes Alex Young’s phenomenal retrospective documentary: R.E.M. by MTV. The film covers the entire R.E.M. story; from their 1980 formation, through their huge success and fame, to their amicable 2011 split. 

The band’s story is told almost entirely using archive footage, in a very interesting way. All band interviews and live performances are used chronologically, and so we watch as a young, shy group of men become more confident and media savvy, and develop their personas along with their musical style. Peter Buck (lead guitar), Bill Berry (drums) and Mike Mills (bass, backing vocals, pianist, everything else) all change over time, from their initial somewhat nerdy appearance to a slightly more rocky look. But the biggest and most fascinating change, is lead singer Michael Stipe’s metamorphosis from long-haired, introverted and quiet young man to a less introverted and more confident older man with that iconic shaved head. In the early days, R.E.M. did not feel or look like a rock band. They were a slightly awkward group of young outcasts. I don’t think many people expected them to become one of the most successful, influential and highest selling bands of all time.

Like with most biographical music documentaries, R.E.M. by MTV is a love letter to the band and is really made with the fans in mind. That’s not to say non-fans can’t watch it – anyone with an interest in music history or success stories will find a lot to like here. But this is a treat for the fans. Granted, true followers of R.E.M. will have seen some of the footage before and will know most of the anecdotes behind the albums, various problems faced by the band (drummer Bill Berry’s on-stage collapse due to a ruptured brain aneurysm and 1997 departure), but there is still a hell of a lot even the big fans won’t have seen or heard – the film makes use of footage that, in some cases, has apparently never been shown. Some of the interviews are extremely insightful (even if lead singer Michael Stipe was somewhat pretentious in his younger years) and, naturally, the film boasts a fantastic R.E.M.-filled soundtrack.

There isn’t a huge amount one can say about R.E.M. by MTV. The story of R.E.M. is a surprisingly interesting one and is extremely well told here, with confidence and style from first-time director Alex Young. Those familiar with the band’s history will find no twists and turns but the film is crammed with fascinating archive interviews and live performances. Fans of the band will have a great time with R.E.M. by MTV, and anyone else with an interest in music should find something to enjoy in the film too. Despite the fact I haven’t listened to R.E.M. in what feels like a very long time, I was surprised to find myself singing along, word-for-word, with almost every song in the film. I’d put money on a lot of you singing along too.

R.E.M. by MTV is an exceptionally well made rock-doc and earns a solid 5/5.


Sam Love

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