Hailed for nearly a decade as the thinking fan’s rock band, R.E.M. have even more hype to live up to since their commercial breakthrough with 1988’s Green. The double-platinum success of this year’s Out of Time LP means the Athens, Ga.-based band faces its biggest audience yet — and its biggest risk of being labeled a sellout.
This Film Is On R.E.M., a 50-minute video compilation featuring songs from Time as well as performance clips and ”interstitial footage” shot by lead singer Michael Stipe, is an intriguing, at times overly self-conscious effort to disprove such accusations. There are many quirky, hazily focused shots, particularly in Stipe’s footage (an infant shown at its mother’s breast as reporters’ voices relay news of political unrest). The band members typically look shy or somber — their concert style could be described as anti-Spinal Tap — and the only sexy babe in sight is Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, who does the hyper-bouncy MTV favorite ”Shiny Happy People.”
R.E.M.’s avoidance of rock-star cliches is reassuring, but this package could use a little more levity. The band manages to look amused and sound vibrant in the video for ”Radio Song,” a new single featuring the forceful rapping of Boogie Down Productions front man KRS-One. And bassist Mike Mills exudes a quiet joy on lead vocals for a shimmering rendition of the Troggs’ ”Love Is All Around.”
Elsewhere, though, songs that range from enticingly moody (”Half a World Away”) to monotonous (”Belong”) combine with murky footage to create an almost oppressive air. R.E.M. have generally been able to make melancholia accessible, even inviting. Still, they would do well to lighten their touch — and touch up their lighting — on their next video project. B