The Real Napolean Dynamite *

* I would not usually put an asterick denotation in my blogpost headline but I felt this needed qualification – hit it Wikipedia from an entry on the movie of the same name: “The name “NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE” is a pseudonym used by Elvis Costello on the back of the album “Blood and Chocolate” (released 1986). Writer/Director Jared Hess has denied that this was his source for the name, once claiming that rather, the name came from an old Italian man he met in Chicago, and that the Elvis Costello connection is a coincidence.”

Coincidence? As if!

So, last night I went to see Elvis Costello (real name Declann McManus) – who is one of my all time favorite performers – backed by the North Carolina Symphony at Regency Park Amphitheater in Cary. Elvis didn’t even remember his last time to the area – he pronounced Raleigh – “Rally” (as in his song “Night Rally”). The show is reviewed below but first I thought it would be fun to look at his film work – such as his many onscreen appearances in what I call:

Costello Cameo Cavalcade!

Costello has done many bit parts in films and TV since the late 70’s. His first was as Earl Manchester in AMERICATHON – a barely seen 1979 John Ritter comedy. Appearances followed in likewise obscure works like the British one seasoner sitcom Scully, as inept magician Rosco de Ville in the film NO SURRENDER (both by Alan Bleasdale), and rounding his ’80’s acting oeuvre out was a cameo as Hives the Butler in Alex Cox’s (REPO MAN) odd thin-tie punk opus STRAIGHT TO HELL which had a bevy of cult musicians in small parts (Joe Strummer, Courtyney Love, members of the Pogues and Circle Jerks, etc.) These appearances were way under the radar mind you, Costello was heading towards the mainstream in the 90’s starting with:


The Larry Sanders Show
(HBO, 1992-1998) Garry Shandling’s satirical talk-show within-a-show featured just about everybody in the business doing exaggerated versions of themselves and Costello was no exception. He appeared first in an episode in the third season – “People’s Choice” (aired: 7/20/94). In one of his long time backing band’s (the Attractions) last TV appearances, Costello performs “13 Steps Lead Down” complete with “Radio Radio” coda before storming out of the studio leaving a trashed dressing room behind in reaction to bad back stage treatment.

The next appearance in “Everybody Loves Larry” (aired: 11/13/96) – also titled “Duchovny’s Crush – Hank’s Lemon” – involves Elvis selling a supposed classic car to Sanders’ co-host Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) which turns out to be a lemon – man, I love stating the obvious. While he performs a beautiful solo acoustic “Little Atoms” from “All This Useless Beauty”, Hank dons glasses in a weak attempt to mock Costello.

SPICEWORLD (Dir. Bob Spiers, 1997) I’ve already written about this cameo before in the post “20 Great Modern Movie Cameos” – so I won’t go on about it again.

AUSTIN POWERS : THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (Dir. Jay Roach, 1999) Because of his vintage brand of swinging pop Burt Bacharach has appeared in all three AUSTIN POWERS movies tinkling the ivories in a downtime romantic setting. Since it coincided with Bacharach’s collaboration with Costello “Painted From Memory” – it was expected that Elvis would show up to sing to Burt’s accompaniment. Elvis said of the scene: “It’s the 1960’s, not to give away the plot, but in some sort of magical way we end up in the 1960’s doing a song.” (Late Night With Conan O’Brien 11/23/98) Austin Powers (Mike Myers) breaks that ole fourth wall by introducing Elvis and Burt as if they were his guests on a talk show and they do a smooth (mimed and lip synched of course) rendition of “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Austin attempts to woo Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) by way of Comical dancing as the song flows.


200 CIGARETTES
(Dir. Risa Bramon Garcia, 1999) The soundtrack to this late ’90’s take on a 1981 New York New Year’s Eve is filled with what they used to call New Wave (Blondie, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Ramones, etc.) so of course Elvis would not only be heard with his definitive cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” but also appears in a cameo as himself. After a night of mishaps and drunken revelry Janeane Garafolo wakes up to find Elvis’s glasses and she realizes she slept with the man in question.

PRISON SONG (Dir. Darnell Martin, 2001) As big an Elvis Costello fan as I am I was not aware of this film until I began this post and am surprised that it has him playing 2 roles – Public Defender/Teacher. Again I’ll defer to the mighty Wiki “The film was originally intended to be a full-fledged musical, but this tested poorly with audiences, so most of the musical numbers – except the most essential to the story – were cut. This helps explain the mysterious appearance of Elvis Costello in two roles in which he does very little.”

3rd Rock From The Sun (NBC 1996-2001) The final episode (aired: 5/22/01) of this beyond silly sci-fi sitcom starring John Lithgow had the family of aliens holding a farewell bash. They hire Elvis Costello who still in full crooner mode sings “Fly Me To The Moon”. I guess this could confirms a lot of pop pundits belief that Costello is the punk rock Sinatra.

The Simpsons (1989-forever) Of course this would be mentioned here – I mean, have you met me? In the episode “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation” (aired: 11/10/2002) Homer goes to a Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy Camp run by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Brian Setzer and yep, our man McManus as instructors. When Costello tries to discourage the guitar as instrument of choice to the aggressive students, Homer storms his tent calling him “nerdlinger” and knocks off his glasses. Elvis exclaims “my image!”

Frasier (NBC Sitcom 1993-2004) Maybe a contender for the best Costello cameo – the man appears, not as himself for a nice change, as Ben – a coffee house folk guitarist with a heavy Scottish accent. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) take immediate offence at Ben taking up performer residence at Cafe Nervosa in the episode “Farewell, Nervosa” (aired: 4/22/03). Costello is hilarious as he performs exaggerated amped up versions of “Wild Rover”,”Tie Me Kangeroo Down”, and especially when he announces that he’s selling CDs (not his own recordings – mind you) outside during a break in his performance – “10 dollars is still the best price for ‘Quadrophenia’!”

DE-LOVELY (Dir. Irwin Winkler, 2004) Credited as “musical performer” Costello appears back in crooner mode on stage at a costume party singing “Let’s Misbehave” in this somewhat surreal Cole Porter bio-pic. Though he’s given a few close-ups, Costello is mostly seen in long shots or heard in the background as Porter (Kevin Kline) and his wife Linda (Ashley Judd) have a plot-point moment.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS : THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (Dir. Adam McKay, 2006) From reports he filmed this cameo in one day and it shows – he didn’t have any actual lines of dialogue. There were just shots of him having tea with Mos Def at Will Ferrell’s title character’s rival driver Jean Girard’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) mansion. Too many Costello songs to fully note have been in movies over the years but HIGH FIDELITY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 1999) must be singled out because it was named after a Costello song (see also LESS THAN ZERO AND CLUBLAND) and it had “Shipbuilding” featured on its motion picture soundtrack. Now on to the show:

Elvis Costello and the North Carolina Symphony @ Booth Amphitheatre, Cary, North Carolina Sept. 13th, 2007

“Me doing a romantic song is like Steve Buscemi playing the George Clooney role in a movie.”
– Elvis Costello introducing “She” 9/13/07

The best concert I’ve ever seen was Elvis Costello and the Attractions on the “Brutal Youth” tour in Raleigh on June 19th, 1994. I was a casual fan up to that point but witnessing the man’s vocal range and attention to melodic detail made me a hardcore fan. Since then I’ve collected his many discs and absorbed his many styles but always preferred the rocking stuff. Well the prospect of Costello singing with an orchestra might have raised my eyebrows at first but there was still the possibility that the man under any circumstance could still rock.

Rock he did – viciously strumming an acoustic guitar he and longtime Attraction/Imposter cohort pianist Steve Nieve offered up a number of Costello classics (“Accidents Will Happen”, “Green Shirt”, “Veronica”) that pleased the audience but the real focus of the evening was the embellished arrangements of the more challenging genre exercises of his canon. “Watching the Detectives” was given a complete workout with mighty percussion and sax involvement and the obvious but still vital “Alison” had a significant rephrasing and affecting as Hell addition of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” added in its coda.

Costello bantered with the audience in a casual and amusing manner even when mentioning “the war” – he brought that up when introducing his Oscar nominated (for COLD MOUNTAIN) song co-written with Allison Krause “Scarlet Tide” and of course when performing Nick Lowe’s immortal “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding”. A song that I stupidly didn’t even anticipate – the gorgeous Chet Baker arranged “Shipbuilding” fit the agenda beautifully as well. I know I’m not alone in my rocking preference – when Costello mentioned his album with the Brodsky Quartet – “The Juliet Letters” he got scant applause but a mere reference to his co-writing a song with Paul McCartney got people to roar. The bottom line whatever the genre, arrangement, or setting is – the man can seriously sing. You have to see him perform live to fully appreciate that I believe because the man’s pipes can’t be contained on a CD or in your iPod’s earphones. So yeah, when it comes down to it – the man rocked.

Postnote – for a complete setlist of the show go here.

Okay! Thanks for indulging me for my birthday week pop music in the movies postings. Next time out – actual recent movies in theaters and on DVD. Stay tuned.

More later…

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