The Dresden Dolls: Paradise (DVD)

God, it’s been a lovely day.

“This woman is…interesting. This woman is…different.”
—Christopher Lydon

God, it’s been a lovely day
Everything is going my way
I took out the trash today

Meet the Dresden Dolls. First, there’s songwriter/singer/pianist Amanda Palmer, she of the striped black and white tights. Then there’s drummer/backup vocalist/occasional guitarist Brian Viglione, he of the Stan Laurel bowler hat. They have a growing fan base thanks to their eclectic music, their outrageous personalities, and their, shall we say, rather personal sense of style. For those who’ve yet to experience these two, now’s your chance thanks to The Dresden Dolls: Paradise on DVD, featuring a live performance, a slice-of-life documentary, and all sorts of general weirdness.

DVD Verdict is proud to present Mac Writes about the Dresden Dolls: A Review in Two Acts. Act One deals with the writer’s own experience with the band, and then Act Two will discuss the DVD.

Act One: The Dresden Dolls

Magic exists. That’s the only explanation I can think of. It was only about two weeks ago while at my day job that a press release crossed my desk, advertising a concert in Exeter, N.H. featuring some band called the Dresden Dolls. The release used some head-scratchingly vague terms to describe them, such as “Brechtian punk cabaret,” “raw and tragicomic,” and “Rocky Horror without the glam.” Interesting, but not information I needed for my job. And yet, I couldn’t get these Dresden Doll people and their upcoming show out of my head. Later, at a music store, I found the Dresden Dolls’ self-titled CD mistakenly placed in the “M” section. It was almost as if some unseen force knew that’s where I’d be looking, and made sure the CD would be there waiting for me. Then, the very next day, I happened to spot The Dresden Dolls: Paradise available for review here at DVD Verdict. I wasn’t actively seeking it, and yet there it was. All these coincidences were too much for me to stand. So, only three days after learning of the band’s existence, I promptly bought a ticket for the New Hampshire show.

After reading that fans like to come to Doll shows in their finest threads, I arrived wearing my black trench coat, my shiny red shirt that I never wear, and my skinny black tie left over from the ’80s. I thought I looked totally bad ass, only to discover at least three other guys standing in line wearing black trench coats, shiny red shirts, and ’80s skinny ties. Oh, well. It’s all good, because the sense of fashion in the line was somewhat skewed, anyway. I’ve learned from experience not to throw around the phrase “goth” very often, but it seemed to apply to a lot of people there. Many, many, young ladies in line emulated Amanda by wearing their own striped black and white tights. Others painted their faces white, wore “Brian” hats, and I spotted one girl with a backpack shaped like a coffin. Still, everyone was outgoing and chatty, even to a complete stranger such as me, and there was a general feeling of positive energy in the air.

It was also while in line that I had my first encounter with the “Brigade.” I’m still not 100 percent clear on exactly who these people are, but apparently they show up at every Dresden Doll performance with their own unique brand of art. One skinny young guy walked around without a shirt in the bitter cold, expressing his message of community and giving to one another. It seems he had literally given the shirt off his back to someone in line ahead of us. He had special praise for a group of cute girls sharing food with each other, saying it was the most he had seen anyone give while in line. I then had a brief encounter with a frighteningly tall woman dressed as Uncle Sam (!) who was also upbeat and friendly to everyone she spoke to. Once inside the theater, there were more Brigade folks, doing their patented “living statue” thing. Many of them held paintings, acting as a sort of human frame for them. The Uncle Sam lady did this also, and if she moved or blinked, I sure didn’t see it. Another Brigade girl handed out copies of vintage porn photos to attendees, kissing the back of each photo with her dark red lipstick. I guess she did this for no reason other than that’s how she expresses herself. Reverend Glasseye was the warm up act, with some wild almost-but-not-quite rockabilly tunes. And in between bands, the theater was hip enough to play the soundtrack to Amélie.

The show proper kicked off with Amanda Palmer running out on stage with a massive bouquet of flowers, ripping it apart and throwing all the various pedals and stems out into the audience. Brian Viglione followed immediately behind her, wearing his trademark hat and what looked to my eyes like a skirt. The two immediately launched into the music. You’d think that a live performance would be limiting with only a piano and drums, but these made the most of what they had, impressing me with their ease behind each instrument. While playing, Amanda kicked her legs around and leaned so far forward on her seat I thought she would fall off of it. Her voice sounded as rich and clear as it does on the CD. Although Amanda is arguably the “star” of the duo, Brian brought continuous theatricality to his performance. He made faces and motions corresponding to Amanda’s lyrics, and he held nothing back in when it came to pounding down on the drums during the more raucous songs.

As grand as the music was, it was balanced by the relaxed atmosphere the two added when interacting with the audience. Whether pleading with the lighting engineers to turn off the “orb” over the balcony, grousing about having the flu, or inviting everyone to get out of their seats and gather in front of the stage, Amanda and Brian gave the evening a feeling of hanging out with friends, rather than a full-blown concert. The fact that they are willing to stop in mid-song and start it over from the beginning to get it right reveals that they are playing music not to show off, but because they just love to play it. There was a sense of fun to it all, with ridiculously long pauses between drum beats in “Coin Operated Boy” and pouring water all over the front row during “Port of Amsterdam.” The evening concluded with Amanda’s moving solo performance of “Hallelujah,” and the show-capper, “Truce.” Brian interrupted that last song to yell “Turn that f***ing thing off” to someone in the audience with a cell phone, an act my fellow movie fans can appreciate, I’m sure.

So, how would I describe the Dresden Dolls’ music overall? It’s hard to pin down, other than it’s just their style. It combines smart and witty lyrics with moody piano and rocking drum beats. It’s some wonderfully creative stuff that I can really get behind. That being said, I’m still not sure just what force compelled me so strongly to see them in the first place. How is it that this band just came out of nowhere and more or less took over my life for about a week? During the show, Amanda related a story to the crowd about a weird T-shirt she recently saw, and then she shrugged and asked, “What does it all mean?” Exactly.

Besides, my oddball spiritual journey was only half complete. I still had to get back home and watch the DVD…


Act Two: The DVD

Paradise chronicles the Dresden Dolls’ June 5, 2005, show at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, Mass. It begins that morning, and takes viewers all the way up through the end of that night’s performance. To do so, the disc’s content is divided into three parts. The first is the hour-long documentary, “A Life in the Day of the Dresden Dolls,” followed by the pre-show at Paradise, and then the concert itself.

Viewers expecting rampant quirkiness might be turned off by the opening half of the documentary, in which we see Amanda and Brian wake up in their respective apartments, and go about their daily morning routines. Amanda puts on her makeup, Brian gets his hair done, Amanda checks her e-mail, they talk with friends, and so on. I’m left to wonder just what they and director Michael Pope hoped to accomplish with these scenes. That Amanda and Brian are just normal folk like the rest of us? That they’re not afraid to let viewers in on their lives? Either way, it’s not quite the captivating “inside look” that they might have hoped for. Once our heroes arrive at the Paradise, though, the action perks up. Perhaps that’s because they’re in their element, and more able to shine.

As the clock ticks closer and closer to the show, there are backstage blackouts to be dealt with. Outside, the Brigade shows up, as well as a colorful assortment of fans. The fan interviews are very funny, and a few of them even let the cameras inside their own homes. Next, we get our first appearance of NPR personality Christopher Lydon, the subject of one of Amanda’s songs. From the safety of his car, Lydon checks out the various characters in line, asking “This is my scene?” Along the way, we get a hilarious “re-enactment” of how the Dolls’ tour manager took care of a problem with some missing drums. So, although the doc starts out slow, it builds into an entertaining work as it proceeds.

The pre-show kicks off with an interview between Lydon and the Dresden Dolls, in which he finally confronts Amanda. A few questions from fans are also answered, but there’s only a hint at the creative process. Other pre-show antics include a dance number and a sign language number set to the band’s songs. While this is going on, we get some looks at Brian and Amanda backstage, getting ready for their time in the spotlight.

Once the actual performance starts, it conveys much of the same energy I saw on stage in New Hampshire. When the performers spend all their time sitting at their respective instruments, it must be a challenge for a filmmaker to keep things interesting, and Pope does a fine job in capturing the entire show without it feeling repetitive. We get plenty of close-ups of Amanda’s hands on the keys, and the camera gets in close on Brian as he hammers away at the drums as well. The lighting changes for various songs, with colors jumping from red to blue to gold. The 10 songs vary in style, from softer numbers such as “Perfect Fit” and “Truce” to harder, faster numbers like “Half Jack” and “Girl Anachronism.” The only thing missing are more shots of the crowd. Given the fans’ enthusiasm and their intense fashions, it would have been nice to include more than just a few quick glimpses of them during the show.

Video on the DVD sometimes reveals a low-budget nature in its documentary half, which is grainy and overly bright at times. During the performance, though, the picture improves, making the most of the various colors used at the show. As can be expected from a music disc, the audio is rich and immersive, filling the room with Amanda’s piano skills and her deep voice. I noticed a lot of audience applause coming out of the rear speakers, giving it a real “you are there” feeling. For bonus features, we get two additional songs, “Coin Operated Boy” and “Girl Anachronism,” recorded at a 2005 performance in Denmark. If you really love those two songs, the videos for both are also here, showing off more of the Dolls’ quirky visual sense. Overall, it’s a fine presentation on DVD, and probably the next best thing to being there in person.

This rebuttal was written
To make you feel smittener
With my sad picture
Of a critic getting bitterer
Will you extract me
From my rock music fantasy
I didn’t think so
For me they were a discovery
But others might find them scary
Dresden Doll music’s not for all tastes
Your mileage may vary

The preceding 2,000-plus words are quite possibly the most self-indulgent piece I’ve ever written, and all you really want to know is whether you should spend your hard-earned cash on this DVD. I say the answer is yes. There’s some fine music entertainment to be had here.

The Verdict

Amanda Palmer renounced my love. Wait a sec: No, she didn’t. Not guilty.

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