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‘Big Time’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 01, 1988


Chris Blum
Parental guidance suggested

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Except for those who are already Tom Waits die-hards, "Big Time" is going to feel like Hard Time, though only roughly 87 minutes long.

More an indulgence than a concert, "Big Time" was filmed during Waits' 1987 tour and contains all or parts of 22 songs. Some of these songs are actually quite good, but only rarely are they listenable, since Waits years ago let persona override delivery. He may have started out as a promising singer-songwriter with a penchant for the poignant vignette, but he quickly found that his public preferred him as the world-weary, besotted raconteur, the lush lounge lizard or the blitzed Bowery uncle with stories to tell.

Waits never had much of a voice, but now he has none: Lyrics are delivered like coals crashing down the chute, couched in a mesmerizing but eventually tiresome voodoo-cabaret style that sounds like Dr. John on, alternately, uppers and downers. Screamed, gargled, mumbled -- and very occasionally sung -- the lyrics cry out for subtitles. Maybe this one should have been called "The Howling."

"Big Time" was put together by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan from concerts in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rather than let the songs stand naked, Waits and Brennan wrap them in a conceit of flimsy scenarios and monologues (they dub the film "Un Operachi Romantico"). Thus Waits, who has made a favorable impression with small roles in other people's films, rambles through "Big Time" trying to hold it together, but succeeds only in making it longer. Director Chris Blum, coming from a string of Levi's 501 commercials, doesn't help much; he seems hamstrung by Waits' dark, quirky lighting schemes and the singer's apparent desire to appear mostly in facial close-ups.

The sad thing is that the promise in Waits' music is still apparent, particularly in bittersweet meditations like "Time" and "Innocent When You Dream." Other good songs -- "Cold Cold Ground", "Train Song," "Johnburg, Illinois" -- surface from time to time, but Waits has chosen to focus on his three latest albums -- made, coincidentally, for Island, the record company owned by the same man who owns Island Visual Arts, the film company releasing "Big Time." And, truth be told, those Island albums contain some good songs but not his best work.

The music itself is often intriguing, with echoes of Brecht and Weill, Astor Piazzolla, Rudy Vallee, gospel, cabaret, blues, the kitchen sink. Waits' piano and Willie Schwartz's accordion often evoke entrancing textures, and the band has a supple, amiable grace that, unfortunately, never overrides Waits' squalid delivery. Too often he sounds like a frustrated would-be bluesman, a man who's taken his press too seriously, or, at worst, a parody of himself.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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