Last week a 13-year-old performance by the late Elliott Smith was posted on YouTube by a user named Al Rose Promotions. It was accompanied by this message: “I tore up the floorboards at H.Q. the other day and came up with this little number on VHS. She holds up well. Love, Al.”
There is no Al. The promotions company belongs to Paul Thomas Anderson, the director responsible for a parade of critically acclaimed films including Magnolia, The Master and the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood. Running more than 43 minutes, the video (above) features storied producer and musician Jon Brion playing host to a show staged in an instrument-filled studio. Brion’s guest is Portland-native and pop songwriting genius, Smith.
The concept of the show is that Brion will play accompaniment to his guest, sometimes inviting other performers on stage to assist. Like the regular Friday night shows that Brion performed at the club Largo in Los Angeles at the time, the performance is largely improvised. Those Largo performances, displaying the depth of Brion’s pop knowledge and musicianship, were huge successes. And in this instance, with Smith, the result is one amazing musical moment after another.
When the tape appeared a week ago, it was accompanied by initial reports from supposedly reputable sources that it was a rejected pilot for The Jon Brion Show, produced by Anderson for consideration by VH1. This gave YouTube commenters something to squawk about.
“VH1 rejecting this was a omen to the end of MTV networks being Music channels,” wrote a user named fernando perdomo. “Imagine if they did take a risk and beam Jon Brion to suburban homes every week.. there would be way more sophisticated pop songwriters and maybe less teen moms.. “
420Jelbas was even less diplomatic: ““ok honestly, vh1 can suck my cock … you blind corporate motherfuckers … i sign in dismay at your deluded antics.”
What was truly shocking to me, though, was not that VH1 passed on this program, but that the cable channel would even consider it. Or that anyone with any media savvy—which I believe Brion and Anderson both possess—would create this kind of programming thinking that a channel aimed at a wide national audience would pick it up.
The lighting is elegant and intimate, but it’s not very flattering to the players, whose various shades of brown attire muddy into one another. The players themselves are awkward and halting between their performances. Brion is almost sardonic with his hosting duties, playing much more to the few dozen audience members in the studio than to the cameras. His demeanor is casual to the point of obliviousness. Brion begins the show by playing a very odd, but well-executed theme song on the piano and then asks the audience to imagine the cartoons of him that will be added in, post-production. It feels doomed from the start. He then introduces Smith.
YouTube commentor Dave WallyWurld commented that Smith’s “voice sounds like a prepubescent boy and looks like Severus Snape.” It’s a cruel critique, but there is some truth to it. That which we fans of Smith adore–his successful attempts to reach notes he has no business singing, his hangdog look–are what make Smith a weirdo to many and, ultimatey, a poor choice for a television pilot. Brion makes little attempt to connect the unaware viewer to his hugely talented guest. He is chummy and supportive of Smith, with whom he had worked since playing on Smith’s album, XO, released in 1998. But there are many inside jokes and little exploration of the artist for his audience. “So your name is Elliott?” he asks at one point. They laugh.
Smith’s performance is powerful. “Independence Day,” accompanied by Brion and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau is a revelation. Smith also plays a few covers. He doesn’t talk about how much John Lennon and the Kinks and Big Star mean to him; he simply shows it by playing moving renditions of “Jealous Guy,” “Waterloo Sunset” and “Nightime.” For fans of Smith, who passed away a decade ago now, this performance is a reminder of the talent that put Smith in the spotlight. But it is also a reminder of his incredible discomfort in that spotlight. There are moments on the tape where empathic viewers will ache for him. After he finishes playing a jarring rendition of “Everything Means Nothin to Me” on piano, he asks if he can do it over again. The song was fine, but Elliott was not. Sitting with slumped shoulders, he looks almost devastated. It is heartbreaking to watch. This might be a moving experience for fans, but it’s not good TV.
I wondered what was up. So I did some sleuthing.
Turns out this wasn’t the show that VH1 passed on. That show was filmed a year earlier, in a venue at the Santa Monica Pier. Also titled The Jon Brion Show, it has been available online for six years now.
Watching those clips (below), it is easy to imagine that The John Brion Show could, possibly, have appeared on cable television around the turn of the millennium, a modern update of VH1’s very successful Storytellers series, with skits. The inverse of Saturday Night Live. The production value was high, and the mood was convivial, filled with smiling faces and energetic jump cuts. There was Brion strumming his guitar on the pier. Then, there he was addressing the camera in an intimate confessional style, eyes wide with the sly smile of someone letting you in on a secret. He would introduce his next guest and then on a stage, in front of a live audience, the artist would perform a song. Elliott Smith did appear on that pilot, playing the song “See You Later.” His performance was strong, he looked good. Everyone looked healthy, like they had just returned from a weekend at the beach. They were hopeful.
VH1 apparently passed on the project. It was at that point that P.T. Anderson, who had already employed Brion to write the scores to his first film, Hard Eight, and Magnolia stepped in, rented a studio called Ocean Way and made a very different Jon Brion Show.
“I said there’s a way we can do something & we should experiment,” Anderson told the PTA fansite, Cigarettes & Redvines. “So, we just basically shot tests for about three episodes. I paid for it myself & we just did it…. I rented it, got a few cameras & threw up a couple of lights. No big deal. I had Fiona sing. I had Jon sing. Elliott Smith came by. Bette Midler happened to be recording at the studio next door & was like ‘I want to sing!’ It was insane! Next thing I know, Bette Midler is doing ‘50’s cover tunes.”
What happened to those other performances is still a mystery. Anderson does not appear to have submitted the Smith episode to any channel or production company for consideration. Watching the performance again (for my fourth time, actually), that was most likely the right choice. This wasn’t the beginning of something new. This was the end of something that I am sure was frustrating and painful for Brion. Maybe he didn’t know it was the end, but it was. Fortunately, and fittingly, it is a moment he chose to share with two artists who know how to coax beauty out of gloom.
Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see or hear, email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him about it. Or follow him on Twitter.