Monday, December 15, 2008

What do Elvis Costello and William Shatner have in common?

I enjoy interviews with creative people. I am fascinated by what makes them tick and how they think. I don't have much use for celebrity interviews, though, particularly when the celebrity is of the A-list Hollywood variety. The stars come out when they have something new to shill, after some PR flack like me has trained them to say only the appropriate things and stay on message, so whether they're talking to Oprah or the ladies on "The View," you rarely gain any real insight into the person or their craft. Even the rare shocking personal confessions seem scripted and conveniently timed. (Halle Berry is the queen of the well-timed personal confession). But I've discovered two new interview shows that I'm digging: "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..." (Sundance Channel, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) and "Shatner's Raw Nerve" (Biography, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET).

I'm a singer/songwriter you know...well, a frustrated one...on the inside. Truth is, I sing off key and can't play an instrument, but I love music--really love it, in the way that musicians talk about loving it and studying it and pulling it apart. So, you know, I've always felt that if I weren't so lazy or if I hadn't been so committed to being an academic achiever, I might be a rock star. As it is, I'm just a fan with a healthy music collection. But I still love reading interviews with famous musicians, conducted by other musicians. In "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with...," the rocker sits down to talk about music and other things with a surprising roster of guests.

SPECTACLE: ELVIS COSTELLO WITH... fuses the best elements of talk and music television and invites viewers to enjoy an intimate conversation between host Costello and his guests, punctuated by rare musical performances by Costello, his guests and a wide variety of musicians. Among the guests for the 13-part series are Sir Elton John, Tony Bennett, Lou Reed, artist-director Julian Schnabel and President Bill Clinton. Read more...


Even without Costello's thoughtul interviewing, it would be worth the watch to see him duet with Lou Reed on "Perfect Day." The interview with the former Warhol protegee and music legend that I watched this weekend was like eavesdropping on two greats, talking chords and inspirations. The addition of Julian Schnabel (who designed Reed's critically-acclaimed "Berlin" tour) halfway through the show slowed things a bit. Frankly, Schnabel seemed prickly and under-the-influence, though maybe he was just being "arty."

It is a pleasant surprise to find that Costello, the original angry young man, is more mellow, thoughtful and intellectual in middle age. (Would early Elvis have agreed to dress up like a bear on Stephen Colbert's Christmas Special? I think not.) I am also gratified to see a pending interview with President Bill Clinton. Everyone asks Bill about politics. I can't wait to see him talk about his sax playing. And it pleases me to see some women's names on the interview list. When folks start talking to influential musicians, especially in the rock genre, women get forgotten. Costello is planning to sit down with his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall, plus Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Jenny Lewis and She and Him.

If Costello isn't as self serious as I expected, William Shatner, in his new interview show, isn't as self-parodying. Oh, the Shatner delivery is sorta there. (Interesting fact--I was watching a biography of William Shatner where they discussed his awkward style of acting. The actor insists that he doesn't affect those strange pauses and odd moments of emphasis on purpose. He doesn't even realize he does those things. Shatner also added that he learned Jimmy Stewart was unaware of this trademark stammer and Edward G. Robinson was in the dark about his oft-mimicked "Nyah....You'll never get me copper...nyah." Anywho...) But "Shatner's Raw Nerve" is serious business. No. "Serious" isn't the right word. Salacious? Shatner picks at the raw nerves of his B-list guests, encouraging them to lay bare their sins, scandals and downfalls.

Shatner's Raw Nerve is William Shatner's own edgy and off-beat celebrity interview series. In each episode Shatner will attempt to probe his guest's most sensitive subjects and touch upon a Raw Nerve to explore life's most intriguing questions and unearth his guests' strange and unknown stories that are most surprising, revealing, funny, touching or bizarre. Read more...

On the episode that I watched (I've got two others saved on DVR), the host discussed drugs, alcohol, food and addiction with actress Valerie Bertinelli (clip).The show's guest list seems designed to amp up the juicy: Jenna Jameson, Tim Allen, Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, etc. But in Shatner's hands, at least the Bertinelli interview seemed less like prurient voyeuristic prying and more like two people with adult pasts and personal demons having a frank conversation. (Captain Kirk has more demons than you think.) The host is admirably willing to reveal his own challenges in this calm, fatherly manner, to coax more from his guests. And it gets weighty: Watch as he and Bertinelli discuss God and religion in the clip above or as he combats Jon Voight's Republican double speak in this one. Like "Spectacle," "Raw Nerve" feels very personal and intimate. I like that.

I do wish Shatner was able to get bigger names. I never quite felt the need to see an interview with Tim Allen. But maybe that's why the show works for me. Bigger names have more to lose, thus the canned, boring interviews. Lesser lights that no longer garner tabloid attention can speak more honestly and openly, giving us valuable insight into the person behind the "art."

Readers, have you caught either of these new shows?

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