CD/DVD Review: Rufus Wainwright, Milwaukee at Last!

Milwaukee at LastBetter late than never, the saying goes, and the saying is certainly true for Rufus Wainwright with his latest release. Milwaukee At Last!!! captures a 2007 performance by Wainwright at the Pabst Theatre in, you guessed it, Milwaukee.  Two years later, the project has finally seen the light of day, just in time to capitalize on Wainwright’s increased visibility (due to the premiere of his first opera) and perhaps to tide his fans over while he steps back into the studio to record his follow-up album to 2007’s moderately successful Release the Stars.

While there is no new material here – the CD draws almost entirely from Release the Stars – there is certainly enough material of interest to keep you entertained.  Clocking in at just under an hour, the CD gives the listener a taste of Wainwright’s live show is all about.  But given that Wainwright’s live renditions of songs very rarely deviate from the studio versions, not even in tempo, a live release from him is remarkably similar to a studio release, save for applause and a few missed notes here and there.

So what makes this release worth it, if it’s just a rehash of already-released material, only with some missed chords and flat notes?  The DVD, that’s what.  I don’t feel that the CD stands very well on its own, as a release in general or as a representation of Wainwright’s live shows, because so much of his show is visual, especially the shows during the Release the Stars tour.  Seeing the performances — the crazy patterned suits, the sparkling brooches, the flamboyance of it all, and, yes, even the lederhosen — gives new life to the songs.

Filmed by documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles (of Grey Gardens fame), the show captures Wainwright in all of his glory, highlighting a performer who has evolved and matured (in a way) over his years in the business.  He’s still irreverent and off-topic and even awkward at times, much as he was when he first came onto the music scene, but there’s a confidence and swagger behind it now that, if not exactly new, is backed up by years of solid recordings.  Wainwright isn’t just an artist, he’s a performer, and the spotlight loves him.  Some of the performances need to be seen to believed, but throughout it all, Wainwright brings honesty and perhaps even a child-like glee to his approach to performing.

Perhaps my favorite part of the DVD, however, are the scenes shot backstage before the show.  The film opens with Wainwright and his boyfriend, Jörn Weisbrodt (they met after a performance of Wainwright’s several years ago: “There was a part of the show where I took off all my clothes,” Wainwright explained, “and by the end, I had a boyfriend.”).  The band members aren’t left out, as there are plenty of scenes interspersed throughout songs (mainly in the first act) featuring the various members of Wainwright’s backing band.  “I always wanted to dress like my grandmother,” said multi-instrumentalist Jack Petruzzelli, when asked how he felt about the many shiny brooches that the band members were encouraged to wear by Wainwright.  I personally found myself more captivated by the backstage scenes than the concert footage itself — nothing negative against the concert footage, but having seen Wainwright live several times and having watched/listened to countless recordings of live shows, I was far more interested in seeing the backstage stuff that the rest of us aren’t usually privvy to.  This is probably just me being a fangirl and wanting to add to the horrifically large amount of knowledge that I keep in my head about anything Wainwright-associated. Your experience may differ.

For the most part, I found the concert and backstage footage to be beautifully shot and edited together.  There was some camera work that I thought was a bit questionable (shots from within the audience, making the action on stage partially obscured; close-ups of mouths and chins and such; shots lingering for far too long on the audience) and some strange editing (ending scenes in slow motion, strange screen wipes and juxtaposed images), but hey, what do I know, I’m not a legendary filmmaker, I’m just a music blogger.

The package is rather nicely put together, as well.  It’s not as in-depth as I’d like to see my liner notes be, but there are plenty of great photos, and the color scheme used is festive and appropriately Wainwright-ian.  The DVD menus are interesting to look at, showing clips from the documentary underneath different snippets of song. Maybe I’m a bit too detail oriented, but I enjoyed the fact that even the menu screens kept me watching through the end of the clips, rather than reaching for the remote.  Bonus features include a solo performance of Wainwright’s song “Grey Gardens” (which references Maysles’ film), three songs from the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and Wainwright and his band rehearsing songs in preparation for sister Martha Wainwright’s wedding.

Is this release the best way to introduce a newcomer to Wainwright’s work?  No, probably not.  The DVD is entertaining if you’re a fan of Wainwright or concert recordings, or if you’re voyeuristic enough to want a glimpse into the backstage goings-on.  But I suspect that this release wasn’t put out with the main intention of drawing in large numbers of new fans: as noted, there were two years in between the filming of the show and the release, and the group clamoring loudest for the show to see the light of day were the “boardies,” the devoted, vocal, and very determined fans on Wainwright’s official message board.

In the liner notes, Wainwright dedicates the project those very fans.  As one of those aforementioned “boardies” who at one point traveled over 700 miles by herself to sit front and center at a solo Wainwright show and stood outside for ages on a cold New Jersey winter night in hopes of getting to meet him, I’ve got to admit that I’m touched at Wainwright’s public recognition of his devoted fans. The material here may not be new, and it may be a show from a tour that I saw in all its sparkling glory two years ago, but it’s a welcome addition to my collection.

Milwaukee at Last!!! was released September 22nd in the US on Decca Records and is available to purchase at the fine retailer of your choice.  Visit Wainwright’s official site for more information.