First season of Elvis Costello’s Spectacle is now on Netflix Instant Watch – and so worth streaming. Both seasons (2008-2010) are available on DVD.
I caught this show when it aired on the Sundance Channel, but these episodes are even better the second time around. Granted, Costello favors musicians from the pop and rock I grew up on – from Lou Reed to The Police – and I’ve always been intrigued by the singer-songwriter thing, maybe because it’s one place a writer gets to write something then perform it before screaming fans?
If you’re a guy, it’s also a place where you get to dress outrageously and wear as much jewelry as you like. Spectacle is, among other things, a spectacle of male costume. Costello himself was rocking the nerdy black-frame glasses long before they were hip, probably a tip of the hat to Buddy Holly.
What I love about this show is that the interviewer is an insider, so he knows the right questions to ask and often follows up with his own crazy show-biz experiences. This makes for some fascinating conversations. Not only is he extremely knowledgeable about the music industry, Costello is brilliant at improvising – cracking on himself, responding to things shouted from the audience, getting musicians to jam on the spot. At the end of a session with James Taylor, Sweet Baby James gets a standing ovation, waves to the crowd, then leans over and says something into Costello’s ear that makes him laugh and start singing The Hippopotamus Song. Taylor joins in and they walk off the stage singing, “Mud, mud, glorious mud…”
Obviously many of these musicians are on his show – The Police did their final TV performance on Spectacle – because they came up with Costello as fellow performers in London in the late ’70s and ’80s. Others he just idolizes. Smokey Robinson is one of those. In every episode, you’ll find yourself conscious of witnessing living history.
I gather Tony Bennett was there at the suggestion of Costello’s wife, smokey-jazz singer Diana Krall, who toured with Bennett early on. That interview turns out to be a delightful little slice of pop culture history. At one point, Bennett brings Krall up on stage to improvise a jazz number with him while hubby Costello smiles proudly from stage left: cute.
Elton John, a producer of the show and first guest on season one, wears diamond ear studs, a honking pinky ring and bejeweled Celtic cross brooch on the lapel of his pinstripe suit. Overall effect: flamboyant overkill, which has always been Elton John’s style. But he went at it in a campier way in his youth, with the platform shoes and over-sized costume glasses, sort of a Liberace for the ’70s and ’80s. Now he looks a bit like a Dick Tracy mob boss.
Later in the season, Costello brings Elton on to interview his wife. Highlight: Krall and her band improvising “Night Train.” (It often takes a few minutes for the musicians to loosen up, verbally and musically. Half way into the show is when you start hitting pay dirt.) Irony: the women on Spectacle wear very little jewelry compared to the fellas – except for the late Kate McGarrigle, who showed up in a chunky amber necklace to perform with her son, Rufus Wainwright.
In the episode with Lou Reed, Julian Schnabel (of the broken-crockery paintings and deep films) is called out of the audience and comes on stage carrying a tumbler of scotch, wearing purple pants perfectly coordinated with Elvis’ purple shirt. Julian wears his purple with a plunging black satin pajama top to show off his hairy chest. He’s too tipsy apparently to field Elvis’ first overly-cerebral question and handles it with total lack of grace. But it turns out the artist/filmmaker lives across the street from Lou and they’re best buds, so that makes for some interesting chat.
Next up is The Police. Sting comes on stage wearing a silver bracelet and black satin shirt opened to reveal a Tibetan Dzi bead (pronounced “zee”), an ancient amulet made of agate, prized for its protective qualities and believed, in Tibetan culture, to attract dieties or bodhisattvas. (Props to the commenter who alerted me to this phenomenon below.) Seems to be working for Sting, in more ways than one.
Can I just say? Sting’s beard may be graying but if you want to maintain your perfect 25-year-old bod when you’re 60, take a cue from him and start doing yoga every day. Watching The Police team up with Elvis Costello to perform “Watching the Detectives” (Costello’s first big hit), morphing into “Walking on the Moon” – so fun for an ’80s babe.
But the best episode in my opinion was the one with Smokey Robinson. He’s 68 here and wearing a diamond cross pendant and serious diamond earrings, a neon-red cashmere sweater – and look how beautiful he still is!
More amazing still is how beautiful his voice still is. Sting did okay but his voice was a little raw (he’d been playing sold out stadiums for two years on one of the most successful reunion tours in history). Lou Reed cannot carry a tune to save his life, legend though he is. (He does make for a fascinating interview.) But when Smokey sings Tracks of My Tears at almost 70 years old, you can close your eyes and believe you’re in 1975. His voice still soars, even on those crazy high notes.
Host Elvis wears dark suits with flamboyant shirts and lime-green socks, his trademark specs and fedora, sometimes long silk scarves, sometimes a silver bolo tie (pictured below). But Smokey knows to wear bright red that pops against the blue-lit stageset and sets off his pale green eyes.
Talk about living history. Spectacle is filmed at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where Smokey and so many other Motown legends got their start. When he first comes out, Elvis says he couldn’t be more excited if Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx had all walked on stage at the same time.
Smokey proceeds to tell stories about being discovered at 16 by Barry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, crashing and burning at the Apollo before being rescued by Ray Charles, becoming best friends with Marvin Gaye, and the generosity of the “Motown family” (which he says was not a myth).
At one point, he goes into a passionate rant that starts with how people use love to justify prejudice. “Can I use the word bullshit on this show?” he asks politely. Why, yes, you can! “Love is the most powerful emotion that we have,” he concludes. “Let’s use it on each other.”
The episode ends with Elvis and Smokey beautifully harmonizing on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” one of many famous songs Robinson wrote. If you’re not feeling the love by then, there’s no hope for you.
Spectacle is a show where one artist interviews other artists. Most are men and almost all wear jewelry and have a lot fun with their clothes. I found myself marveling at how much more freedom artists and musicians (these guys are both) have with their jewelry and accessories. Spectacle is an interesting example of how jewelry isn’t really about gender or even age, it’s about the freedom to express yourself.
The beauty of the show itself is that you get to go behind the scenes in a creative process that ends up performed live, reinvented every time. It’s a show that celebrates not just the power of music but the magic of songwriting – and songs are something we all live by. As Lou Reed says to Elvis, “[Music] makes emotions happen quicker and better and bigger and faster. And you do it in a song! A three-minute song can reduce you to tears or make you physically get up and dance. That’s really something.”