In View: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 Review

This DVD, In View, is a companion to the CD In Time, both being best-of compilations. The main body of the disc consists of sixteen videos in reverse chronological order, with the option to watch them with brief interview snippets with the band members in between. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 to 6 inclusive.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that this DVD is aimed far more at casual and more recent fans of the band, rather than the more long-term ones. There’s no doubting the quality of music: some of R.E.M.’s definitive songs are on here. No question about the accompanying videos either: many of the directors have had or have gone on to have feature film credits, and you can see why. But somehow this collection falls short.

For one thing, all these tracks all date from 1988’s Green album onwards. That was the first record R.E.M. made for Warners. Of the five earlier albums made for IRS, many people would list Murmur (1983) and Document (1987) as among their finest, and I’d suggest Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) isn’t far behind. However, none of these albums is represented at all, which makes for an unbalanced picture of the band's career. Certainly videos were made during the IRS years: there’s even one of “Radio Free Europe” from Murmur. And even from the years covered, there are some curious omissions, Spike Jonze’s video for “Crush with Eyeliner” being one. The oldest song here is actually the new single, “Bad Day” (sometimes known as “PSA” on bootlegs), written around the time of Document but never officially released until now.

The tracklisting is as follows, with director names and running times:

"Bad Day"(Tim Hope, 4:01)
"All the Way to Reno" (Michael Moore, 4:25)
"Imitation of Life" (Garth Jennings, 3:38)
"The Great Beyond" (Liz Friedlander, 4:16)
"At My Most Beautiful" (Nigel Dick, 3:35)
"Daysleeper" (Snorri Bros, 3:39)
"Electrolite" (Peter Care & Spike Jonze, 4:08)
"E-Bow The Letter" (Jem Cohen, 4:23)
"What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?" (Peter Care, 4:01)
"Nightswimming" (Jem Cohen, 8:15)
"The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (Robert Duffy, 4:07)
"Everybody Hurts" (Jake Scott, 5:37)
"Man on the Moon" (Peter Care, 4:46)
"Losing My Religion" (Tarsem [Singh], 4:45)
"Stand" (Katherine Diekmann, 3:14)
"Orange Crush" (Matt Mahurin, 3:51)

There’s a great variety of styles and approaches here, from straightforward band-performance stuff to miniature if inscrutable narratives. (“Nightswimming” only features the song in the middle of its eight-minute length and includes a far amount of nudity of both sexes.) Visually, the videos vary from the Bruce Weberish black and white of “Orange Crush”, to saturated colour, with many different textures and hues in between. All the videos are 4:3 which, as they were filmed with TV sets in mind, will get no argument from me.

The interview footage is really mere snippets, filmed on different occasions and at different times, as shown by changing hairstyles and Peter Buck’s appearing and disappearing beard. Each snippet is barely more than a minute long, so no-one really has a chance to say anything very substantial.

There are six bonus videos. “Bonus” presumably means that these are unaccompanied by interview footage. They are:

“Tongue” (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 4:07)
“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” (Lance Bangs, 4:57)
“New Test Leper” (Lance Bangs & Dominic DeJoseph, 5:30)
“Bittersweet Me” (Dominic DeJoseph, 4:48)
“Lotus” (Stephanie Sednaoui, 4:35)
“I’ll Take the Rain” (Yoshitomo Naro & David Weir, 4:38)

Again, these are all full-frame, and there is no fall-off in picture quality from the main series of videos.

There are three sound mixes available: 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS, and 2.0 Stereo. The latter (non-surround) replicates the original music track as heard on CD. The two surround-sound remixes mostly comprise of separating out certain elements of the recordings – particular instruments, say, or vocal lines – and sending them through the surround channels instead of the fronts. (I haven’t been able to listen to the DTS track, but I’d assume much the same applies there.) The result is, to my mind, distracting and gimmicky. As what we are listening to is basically CD material, give or take the odd lines of dialogue or sound effect in some of the videos, and CD is a 2.0 format, just for once I’d recommend the lower-tech alternative. Previous R.E.M. DVD releases used PCM Stereo, and I would have thought that would have been the better option here.

The same three sound options are available on the footage from the South Africa Freedom Day Trafalgar Square concert of 29 April 2001. The R.E.M. songs on this DVD are: “Imitation of Life” (4:10), “Losing My Religion” (4:27) and “Man on the Moon” (5:34). The video footage is 16:9 anamorphic, but is rather soft and murky in places, with quite a lot of artefacting. The fact that R.E.M. were playing after dark can’t have helped. As for the sound, my reservations about remixing recorded material don’t apply here, and certainly the 5.1 mix gives a much more immersive experience than the 2.0 one, with the crowd noise using the surrounds. Each track can only be selected singly from the menu: there’s no “play all” option.

Subtitles are only provided for the interviews and occasional lines of dialogue in certain videos, not for song lyrics. This isn’t unusual on music DVDs, presumably for copyright reasons, but other R.E.M. DVDs have subtitled the lyrics (Parallel does, for example) so it’s disappointing that it couldn’t be done here. Michael Stipe’s lyrics, and occasionally his vocal delivery, are occasionally inscrutable, so some method of following them might have been a good idea. Still, R.E.M. fans with Internet access can find the lyrics easily enough.

The discography is a list of each of R.E.M.’s official recordings, from their original EP Chronic Town to their most recent album Reveal, plus their DVD and DVD-A releases. Each title is a link to a page with a cover scan and a tracklisting. A ”Credits” simply reproduces information that’s available on the reverse of the DVD cover. Finally, there’s a weblink, which takes you to the R.E.M website.

So there it is, a collection seemingly aimed at more casual fans, with some dubious decisions made and certainly not living up to its title. Longer-term R.E.M. fans may well feel shortchanged.

7 out of 10
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