Drumming up laughter

November 25, 2007


Among the new music-related DVDs timed for the holiday shopping season, my favorite is an exquisite little gem that would be easy to overlook amid the slew of more high-profile titles: "Jens Hannemann: Complicated Drumming Technique," recently issued by Chicago's Drag City record label.

Anyone who's ever been serious about mastering an instrument is familiar with the unique subgenre of instructional videos featuring virtuosic players attempting to impart their knowledge. Found by the truckload at every Guitar Center, they are shot in the same sterile but well-lit style; all celebrate the star's sublime skills more than they teach anything useful, and are all pretty much unwatchable -- especially those featuring superstar drummers.

Clearly, this was a corner of the music world ripe for lampooning, and there's no better man for the job than "Saturday Night Live" star, comic provocateur and former Chicagoan Fred Armisen, who laid down some mean polyrhythms himself back in the early '90s when he was the drummer in Trenchmouth. Here, Armisen the chameleon plays two roles: master drummer Hannemann -- who "has asked to record with such artists as Sheryl Crow, Pat Metheny Group, Massive Attack, Barenaked Ladies ..." and who "knows everything there is to know about rudiments, hand-foot control, tempo, time signatures ..." -- and Victor Benedetto, a considerably less accomplished but well-meaning schlub who isn't fit to carry Hannemann's Rototoms or gong bass drum.

Shamelessly hyping his new album "Synchronology," Hannemann and his jazz fusion combo perform songs such as "Polynesian Nightmare" and "Molecular Jungle" in concert at the Tampa School of Music before the drummer proceeds to break down the "very complicated" rhythms, one of which is played in 29/3 time. In between, Benedetto tries to teach aspiring drummers how to change their snares and tune their drums, but his methods are even harder to follow than Hannemann's inscrutable grooves.

If you're a civilian, you'll be amused by this DVD, but you may not find it hysterically funny. Watch it with the muso in your life, however, and they'll be rolling on the floor.


Among the other recent rock DVDs, the big news for Beatles fans is the two-disc set of "Help!" (Apple/Capitol), the band's second movie with director Richard Lester, originally released in 1965. Although the songs include some of the Fab Four's best, with "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "Ticket to Ride" in addition to the title track, the movie isn't nearly as good as its predecessor, "A Hard Day's Night," and the sub-James Bond plot seems particularly cheesy in the wake of "Austin Powers." Nevertheless, no less a filmmaking great than Martin Scorsese makes an eloquent case for the movie in the liner notes, which augment DVD extras such as a making-of documentary, the original trailers and a deleted scene.

Speaking of the Beatles -- or, in the case of Oasis, bands that wish they were -- "Lord Don't Slow Me Down" (Hip-O) is a DVD set build around director Baillie Walsh's documentary chronicling the mad swirl and behind-the-scenes chaos on the best-selling Britpop band's 2005 world tour. How entertaining you find the often incomprehensible Gallagher brothers will depend on how big an Oasis fan you are or how much tolerance you have for mediocre examples of this genre; "Don't Look Back" or "Gimme Shelter" this certainly is not. But for the devoted, the package is nicely completed with a full live concert from the same tour, recorded in the boys' hometown of Manchester.

A much stronger release from another group of '90s heroes is "Nirvana: Unplugged In New York" (Geffen). Appearing on DVD for the first time, the TV special captured an acoustic but unbelievably intense performance by the Seattle trio four months before singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994. This disc features the complete show, which is good and bad: Some of the covers are revelatory -- David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," the Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" and of course the traditional "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?/In the Pines" -- but the three collaborations with the Meat Puppets are nothing special, and you have to wonder why Cobain insisted on sharing the stage with them. This disc does add additional rehearsal footage, however, as well as an unimpressive MTV News documentary.

Finally, to ease our anxiety as we count the days until the half-hour musical sitcom returns, we have "Flight of the Conchords: The Complete First Season" (HBO Video). Another two-disc set, this one includes the first 12 episodes charting the struggles and minor-league triumphs of New Zealand's expatriate indie-rockers, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. I've said this before, but the duo's spot-on parodies of cool sounds ranging from Stereolab to Serge Gainsbourg and from Prince to gangsta rap would be brilliant even if they weren't so funny, and the series is the best absurdist look at the lives of rock musicians since "The Monkees." If you doubt that, or you've so far failed to partake in the merriment, start with episode six, "Bowie," in which the glam icon -- looking strangely like Jemaine -- appears in several of his most famous guises in an attempt to help lift Bret out of the dumps.

"Do they smoke grass in space, Bowie / Or do they smoke Astroturf?" the Conchords sing in a parody of "Space Oddity" that still slays me every time I hear it, even after half a dozen viewings. The only thing that could possibly be better would be if Bret and Jemaine had the rhythmic backing of a great drummer instead of a cheesy beat box. They really ought to ask Murray the manager to ask Jens Hannemann if he'd be up for the gig.