English singer-songwriter Kate Bush is an enigma. She was one of the most successful English solo female performers of the end of the 20th century (e.g. she became the first woman to reach number one on the UK charts with a self-penned song, her 1978 debut single “Wuthering Heights”). Although Bush cites Pink Floyd (guitarist David Gilmour has been a good friend for decades), Elton John, and The Beatles as influences, Bush has steadfastly maintained an individual musical style that touches on art rock, alt-rock, and world music. To date, she has not granted access to any biographers. Her only tour was in 1979 (which was filmed for the BBC and released on VHS as Kate Bush: Live at Hammersmith Odeon, but has never been reissued for the DVD/BluRay market). She released her first full-length debut The Kick Inside in 1978 (EMI) and gradually over the course of her music career took longer and longer to issue subsequent albums: her all-original, double-album Ariel (EMI, 2005) came out 12 years after The Red Shoes (EMI, 1993). This year Bush produced Director’s Cut (Fish People/EMI, 2011), a reworking of older songs which puzzled and confounded fans and critics. Despite or perhaps because of the mysterious quality of her characteristic creativity, Bush remains a popular figure in England and a widely-regarded cult personality elsewhere.
The double DVD-only package Kate Bush – A Life of Surprises: The Story So Far (there is no director listed) attempts to tell Kate Bush’s tale from her start as a precocious teenage musician up to 2005. But caveat emptor – buyer beware – this is set was not authorized by Bush and she does not participate, although older tidbits from recorded interviews are strewn throughout both DVDs. Another important buying consideration is this is a compilation of the previously circulated DVD-only titles Kate Bush: Under Review – An Independent Critical Analysis (Sexy Intellectual, 2005) and Hounds of Love: A Classic Album Under Review (which came out in America in 2009 via Pride, and in Britain in 2006 via Sexy Intellectual, and is still in print in the US). No new footage or other information has been added to this boxed set.
The first disc, which is 73 minutes long, is tiresome and plodding, although both DVDs suffer from too many talking heads, static pictures and clips from official videos, and brief – often substandard (VHS quality) – vintage television interviews and taped live performances. The disc one documentary opens with a breakdown of Bush’s early records The Kick Inside and Lionheart (both EMI, 1978) and Never for Ever (EMI, 1980). Trivia note: Never for Ever was the first-ever album by a British female solo artist to go to number one on the UK album chart. These three records introduced Bush’s literate songwriting and included compositions about the aftereffects of nuclear war (“Breathing,” told from the viewpoint of a baby dying in a mother’s womb), a wife’s struggle to get her husband to notice her (the woman-in-disguise narrative “Babushka”), and of course “Wuthering Heights,” based on Emily Bronte’s novel. Two DVD chapters deal with Bush’s most inspired record, Hounds of Love (EMI, 1985), which was partially inspired by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Here and elsewhere English journalists such as Lucy O’Brien, Phil Sutcliffe, and Nigel Williamson expound on why they consider Hounds of Love a compelling achievement and why it has remained a fan favorite. The documentary wraps up with information on how music from Bulgaria, Ireland, and other environs shaped Bush’s later outings, such as The Sensual World (EMI, 1989), which was stimulated by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bush wanted to set Joyce’s landmark work to music but the idea was squashed by Joyce’s estate. Bush’s only 1990s venture, The Red Shoes (EMI, 1993), partly sparked by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 motion picture of the same name, is also mentioned. This record was notable for its guests (Prince, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and others) and for Bush’s horribly inept 45-minute, long-form promotional film, The Line, the Cross and the Curve, which starred Bush and a young Miranda Richardson. The featurette has never been officially released digitally and has since been disowned by Bush (years later she stated it was “a load of bollocks”). The DVD ends with interviewee remarks on Ariel. DVD extras include a three-minute anecdote from English radio personality Paul Gambaccini about a time in the 1980s when Bush selected music for one of his radio shows (she baffled her audience by choosing eclectic artists such as Captain Beefheart); footage of Bush accepting a music award (also from the 1980s); boring interviewee bios; and an interactive Kate Bush quiz.
The 92-minute Hounds of Love DVD is more interesting for dedicated Bush enthusiasts because it offers in-depth, track-by-track analysis and scrutinizes how the album evolved, how it was produced, its release (Hounds of Love crested the UK charts, knocking Madonna’s Like a Virgin from the number one position, and has been reissued a couple of times, with remastered sound and bonus tracks), and its impact. This second documentary has better interview subjects, notably musicologist Ron Moy and one of Kate’s drummers, Charlie Morgan. Both manage to invigorate the proceedings: Moy utilizes piano and Morgan his drum kit to physically demonstrate Bush’s innovative uses of layered percussion, early digital electronics, and melodic chords. Writer Lucy O’Brien, who appears in the first film, is one of five Bush experts also featured on the second documentary. There is also an examination of some of the old movies, such as Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon), which helped Bush develop some of her lyrics and imagery. Unfortunately, viewers only get glimpses of the pioneering music videos Bush created to help advertise Hounds of Love, such as the one for “Cloudbusting,” which co-stars Donald Sutherland. The sole bonus is a 12-minute segment which has part of a Kate Bush audio conversation with journalist Kris Needs. The audio is so atrociously bad the DVD producers should have put in subtitles.
While the focus of Kate Bush – A Life of Surprises: The Story So Far should be firmly on Kate Bush, due to her lack of involvement and the substantial use of journalistic and academic interviewees, viewers only get a fleeting sample of what Bush thinks about her music and related projects. The edited concert footage, shortened bits from official music videos and some condensed teasers from previously recorded Bush interviews do not add up to a satisfying portrait. Long-term fans looking for an exhaustive study and biography of Bush might be better off reading Graeme Thomson’s unauthorized biography Kate Bush: Under the Ivy (Omnibus Press, 2010), the foremost comprehensive study of Kate Bush’s life and career, which covers much of the same ground as this DVD collection, with further information and much more depth. Sad to say, but this DVD package appears to be little more than an attempt to make more money from old product.