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Radiohead
RADIOHEAD – ARMS & LEGS: THE STORY SO FAR
Pride DVD / MVD Visual
Format: 2DVD
Release Date: June 21, 2011
By Michael Snyder July 28, 2011

This double-DVD set is a decent overview of the Radiohead story up through 2003. Each disc features a separate documentary film, both unauthorized and anonymously produced. The first film is devoted to critical analysis and discussion of Radiohead’s artistic breakthrough, the brilliant 1997 album OK Computer (Capitol), while the second film is a straightforward biography of the band.  The fact that viewers are only taken up to 2003 is important to note because it belies the “Story So Far” subtitle, and many fans are likely to be disappointed not to learn more about the group’s recent history – and the audience for a DVD like this is surely made up almost exclusively of die-hard fans.  After all, Radiohead have released two albums since 2003’s Hail to the Thief (Capitol), along with various solo and side projects, not to mention that in that timeframe they have also helped change the music industry and how popular music is consumed with their “pay what you want” concept for the initial release of In Rainbows.  Fans should also know that this is not a brand new product but a repackaging of two previous home video releases, Radiohead – OK Computer: A Classic Album Under Review (Chrome Dreams/MVD, 2006) and Homework (Chrome Dreams/MVD, 2003).

The first film is mainly comprised of British male music critics and an academic analyzing the compositional structure and the historical and socio-political contexts of the 12 songs that comprise their acclaimed and influential third album OK Computer.  While the included critics and authors, such as Mark Paytress, Alex Ogg, and Barney Hoskyns, are all good sources, many of them having written entire books on the band, a greater variety of commentators ought to have been included – including, say, a woman.  This first film does have the effect of making one want to pull the album off the shelf.  It has dated itself well.  David Stubbs appropriately refers to it as “the first 21st Century album,” while others have called it the final classic album of the 20th century.

Looking at the album in a wider genre context than just rock, contemporary classical influences are discussed.  Philip Glass is invoked in a discussion of the “systems” at work in “Let Down,” whilst Penderecki is cited as an influence upon the foreboding “Climbing Up the Walls.”  Both films posit OK Computer as representing a general lyrical shift from individual existential angst to broader sociological concerns, including the effects of technology and mechanization on society.  Thom Yorke’s thinking was guided by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, as the singer made his way through The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (Vintage, 1994), which posits the failures of state communism and free-market capitalism.  Naomi Klein’s critique of capitalism, No Logo (Picador, 1999), was also a touchstone.  As the biographic second film points out, such intellectualism was and still is rather rare in the world of rock’n’roll and alternative rock.

The Radiohead back story will be at least somewhat familiar to fans, and it is possible that hardcore fans will learn little new here. Nevertheless, the biography is still fairly interesting.  For example, it briefly outlines other projects that Thom Yorke was a part of while Radiohead, in the early days known as On a Friday, was on hiatus after their original phase during which they were students at Abingdon school.  While the first film includes several studio and live clips from OK Computer songs, the biography uses no Radiohead music, nor are members of the band interviewed for it.  However, important figures in their history and from the Oxford, England, scene do appear, such as Mark Gardner of Ride. Early 1990s Oxford indie bands like the mighty Ride and Swervedriver (both signed to Creation Records) paved the way for Radiohead, since prior to that point in time Oxford did not have a notable indie/alternative rock scene.  The local band Rock of Travolta, who Radiohead once placed with, provide some instrumental music along with NOUGHT, both in an appropriate style.  While the OK Computer study is fairly straightforward, cinematography and editing-wise, the second film includes some artful shots and montages designed to suggest the themes of urban alienation and malaise that Radiohead manifest on the album.

Although interesting, the disc two biography is lacking in some ways.  A strong sense of the personalities of the individual band members or their dynamic as a unit is never created.  Only the more serious concerns of the band are addressed, never their more light-hearted side. However, their debut album’s title, Pablo Honey (Capitol, 1993), is famously derived from a Jerky Boys routine, which clearly hints that the band are not so constantly dour.  Also, specific songs are rarely referred to, and the filmmakers move through their career up to 2003 in an overly speedy fashion.  Viewers are treated, however, to some revealing tidbits, such as the fact that Thom Yorke wrote his first song – about an atomic mushroom cloud – at the age of eight, in the midst of a series of surgery procedures on his eye.  There is also more exploration of the band’s already well-publicized anti-corporate ideology and support for free trade.

Ultimately, this DVD set is not a huge revelation, and many viewers are sure to desire to more contemporary material from it.  However, Arms & Legs should be of interest to old fans that don’t already own the original videos or young fans who are interested in finding out more about Radiohead’s early years.

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