I've been listening to Can records for years without any kind of visual counterpart other than the one created in my fertile imagination. Other than the few photographs on the inner sleeve of the Tago Mago LP, I had no idea what the band really looked like, or what their stage presence would be, what kind of clothes they wore, or how they behaved in interviews. In part, it was this total lack of a visual context that made their music all the more mysterious and addictive to me. I imagined a group of hairy future primitives; shamanic heads full of acid and tightly wound sagacity, like Gandalf crossed with The Beatles crossed with those aliens from Fantastic Planet.
When Mute/Spoon announced the release of Can DVD, featuring hours of live and documentary footage of the band across two DVDs, I was excited, but apprehensive. Any video image of the group was bound to pale in comparison to the elaborate image I had extrapolated while listening to their explosive records. I was right to be apprehensive. While it is truly wonderful to finally be able to view and own rarities like the 1972 film Can Free Concert and the early performances excerpted on Can Documentary, the rest of this DVD is frightening and pointless. Can Notes is an overlong documentary assembled by Wim Wenders collaborator Peter Przygodda from years of random video footage. There is a heavy emphasis on the period leading up to and following the release of the Sacrilege remix album. Holger Czukay, Irmin Schmidt, Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli are paraded out, well past their prime, to answer a bunch of submental Actor's Studio-style questions, which elicits exasperating, embarrassing results. Why would you sit down with a genius like Holger Czukay and ask him to name his least favorite word? It ends up playing like a low-rent Where Are They Now? on Can, but with the noticeable absence of any material on vocalists Damo Suzuki and Malcolm Mooney, both of whom are alive and well, and continue to make music.
There are four Dolby 5.1 remixes of songs from the Can catalog, which on the surface seemed like an interesting idea, until I realized that the tracks chosen are all drawn from average-to-terrible latter-day albums Flow Motion, Landed and Rite Time. The multi-dimensional retuning adds nothing to this lackluster material. I should add that Can DVD also comes with an audio CD of material by the core members' post-Can projects. While it's all nice enough, it seems strange that this is packaged with something called Can DVD. Can Notes is also stuffed full of footage and material from these later solo outings. It's almost as if I'm being force-fed this stuff. As interesting as one might find the music of Clubs Off Chaos or Irmin Schmidt's Gormenghast opera, one would need to employ heavy historical revisionism to consider this later work to be nearly as significant as the groundbreaking work of Can. Brian Eno contributes an amusing one-minute video which manages to be completely self-aggrandizing even as it purports to pay tribute to his heroes. The disc also includes the presentation of an Echo Lifetime Achievement Award to the band, but strangely, the award is presented to the surviving members of Can by, er, The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Can Documentary contains many terrific moments - the band performing "Paperhouse" live on German television, a delightfully standoffish interview and excellent promo clips for "Dizzy, Dizzy" and their leftfield disco hit "I Want More." Unfortunately, the film spends a disproportionate amount of time on the ill-advised Rite Time reunion album, and ends with a shamefully piss-poor video for the Westbam remix from Sacrilege. Can Free Concert - made in 1972 by Peter Przygodda - is the DVD's sole moment of pure genius. A 51-minute film combining footage from a 1972 concert in Cologne with candid material of Can composing tracks for Tago Mago inside their Inner Space studio, Can Free Concert displays the full explosive range of the improvisational chemistry between the five band members. The director uses disorienting parallel editing to emphasize the primitive, primal and shamanic qualities of Can's avant-neanderthal noise. It's a pure delight to see Damo Suzuki wearing a red-and-pink velvet jumpsuit, furiously shaking his black mane in time to Jaki Liebezeit's tribal trance drumming. Later, in the studio, Damo works out the vocals for "Bring Me Coffee or Tea" with quiet intensity, and I finally experience the perfect visual equivalent to Can's incomparable magic.
Mute/Spoon should have placed this and the Can Documentary
onto a single DVD and retailed it for the price of a CD. Instead, we
have this overstuffed, prohibitively priced package full of pointless
junk, with a little bit of genius thrown in for color.