A Filmmaker's Love Song

Glenn Tilbrook is the focus of
Glenn Tilbrook is the focus of "Glenn Tilbrook: One for the Road," a documentary by director (and fan) Amy Pickard. (By Ebet Roberts)
By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 27, 2006

Directors of music documentaries usually try to contain their inner rock geek. The filmmakers behind such releases as "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones" or the Metallica tale "Some Kind of Monster" may consider themselves ardent fans of their subjects, but that admiration never creeps into their movies.

The opposite is true in "Glenn Tilbrook: One for the Road" ($19.99), released on DVD Tuesday. It follows the former frontman for British alternative-pop band Squeeze during his 2001 solo tour of the United States and stands as naked testament to the passion that music can inspire: in Tilbrook, his fans and, yes, the filmmaker. Debut director Amy Pickard, who first interviewed Tilbrook and fellow Squeeze founder Chris Difford on a Dayton, Ohio, cable access show in 1991, makes no secret of her everlasting love for the man and his melodies. In fact, she speaks the first words in the film, which mention how much she adored Squeeze as a teenager. Although Pickard's presence may violate a basic tenet of documentaries ("The director should not be part of the story"), it doesn't detract from this charming portrait of a singer-songwriter determined to keep performing, even if it means driving a barely functioning RV cross-country to play small clubs.

For those struggling to remember the highlights of Squeeze's discography, such catchy favorites as "Tempted," "Goodbye Girl," "Black Coffee in Bed" and "Hourglass" should jump-start the musical memories. The band is perhaps best known for its early hits compilation, "Squeeze Singles: 45s and Under," which found its way into almost every Gen X college student's CD collection and ultimately went platinum in the United States. Squeeze's infectious, intelligent pop earned Tilbrook and Difford, who together wrote almost all of the group's songs, comparisons to Lennon and McCartney. But by the late 1990s, Squeeze had reached its breaking-up point. That ultimately led Tilbrook, at age 44, to release an independent solo effort, "The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook," buy an RV and hit the road, his acoustic guitar and Pickard's two-person film crew in tow.

If Tilbrook is bitter about trading his Madison Square Garden days to play library benefit shows and gigs at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, he doesn't show it in "One for the Road." His voice -- so sweetly pitch-perfect on such early '80s hits as "Another Nail in My Heart" -- sounds as resonant as ever, and his performances never cease to surprise. In an article last year in The Washington Post's Sunday Magazine, then pop critic David Segal described a Tilbrook show at Iota in Arlington during which the singer persuaded the entire crowd to move the proceedings into the parking lot, calling it the greatest "Live Concert Moment" he had witnessed. Plenty of great LCMs are packed into Pickard's documentary. In New York City, Tilbrook jogs through Grand Central Station, leading a singalong of "Goodbye Girl" as his audience trots dutifully behind, doing its best to keep up with their Pied Piper of pop. During a gig in Boston, Tilbrook again takes fans outdoors and into the streets, where he hops into the back of a van while crooning "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)." And in Atlanta, he and a small crowd leave the venue and walk to an audience member's home, where Tilbrook continues the show with a spirited version of "Tempted."

The DVD would have been better had more concert footage been incorporated into the disc's extras, but, as Pickard explains during one of two commentary tracks, she couldn't afford to pay for the rights to include it. Still, for an independent release, there are a decent number of bonus features, including a Q&A with Tilbrook after a Tokyo screening of the film; a recent, nearly hour-long interview with Difford; and Pickard's cable-access interview with a much younger Difford and Tilbrook.

Naturally, like any documentary by an inexperienced director, "One for the Road" has its share of flaws. The amateurish title graphics introducing many scenes ("Glenn Shops for RV Supplies") are a distraction, and the digital-video camerawork is occasionally unsteady. (Pickard confesses that when she got home from her first round of touring, she realized that 85 percent of her footage was unusable.) More important, the film never digs into Tilbrook's life as deeply as it should, and we learn little about why Squeeze broke up. Like the title of his solo CD, the film plays a bit like "The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook."

Still, you have to give props to Pickard. With no feature film experience and little financing, she spent four years making a movie about one of her adolescent heroes. The result is a pleasing cinematic gift for Squeeze fans, and proof that sometimes a passion for music can be the best motivation.

Glenn Tilbrook: One for the Road Unrated, 80 minutes Contains an occasional profanity.

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