The Smiths: The Queen Is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review

BY Scott TavenerPublished Jun 18, 2008

A scene from Bryan Forbes’s 1962 film, The L Shaped Room, begins the arduously titled, unauthorised documentary, The Smiths: The Queen is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review. In the clip, Cicely Courtneidge sings "Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” as a subtle discord pervades. It’s a litmus test: if you don’t understand the reference, then what follows will prove standoffishly esoteric. Casual fans will enjoy snippets and live footage of legendary tracks "Bigmouth Strikes Again,” "There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and "Cemetry Gates” but little else; they should stick to the record. Conversely, and this caveat fully determines the DVD’s worth, for diehard The Queen is Dead fans, the documentary is an insightful companion piece. Straight-to-DVD and made without the participation of the Smiths, this cash-grab should fail miserably but, thanks to a credible and diverse roster of contributors, a straight-forward syntax and a mixed tactic examination, it eruditely and comprehensively comments on a storied record. And Tony Wilson is in it, so it must be good. A track-by-track assessment, the doc touches on pre-The Queen is Dead strife (underperforming singles, turbulent label relations, Andy Rourke’s drug addiction) but focuses on criticism. Dissecting Johnny Marr’s musical influences (MC5, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, T-Rex) and Morrissey’s lyrical impetus (Oscar Wilde, socio-political concerns, fatalism, Billy Liar), it enlivens its academic approach with a surfeit of visual and sonic evidence, including in-depth musical explanations from temporary fifth Smith, Craig Gannon. A pastiche of news reels, rare stills and period interviews with Morrissey and Marr contextualise the record, both biographically and musically, while talking-head sessions and film clips dissect the LP in varying terms. Former NME writer Len Brown explains its pivotal place in the changing musical landscape (pre-Britpop, post-post-punk); the album’s engineer, Stephen Street (producer for Blur, Kaiser Chiefs and Babyshambles) tackles its musicality in minute detail; and Wilson outlines the Smiths’ role in indie history, astutely attributing the band’s signing to Rough Trade as a sea change in label politics. The multi-pronged approach creates a broad yet detailed assessment, while the commentators’ candour, especially Street’s, celebrates the album without blindly worshiping it.
(Chrome Dreams)

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