Synopsis: An electronic music spectacular! On the 6th of September, 1997, 3.7 million Muscovites witnessed “Oxygene Moscow” (60 min.), the biggest outdoor live event ever–the celebration of Moscow’s 850th birthday–featuring Jean Michel Jarre with the Red Army Choir and the Bolshoi Kids Choir with live links to the MIR space station. Also included is “Making The Steamroller Fly” (53 min.), a documentary by acclaimed director Aubrey Powell who sets out to discover the man behind the legend on the eve of Jarre’s greatest live spectacular.
eyelights: the incredible production of the show.
eyesores: the scattershot direction.
I don’t know about you but, for me, Jean Michel Jarre seemed to be omnipresent for much of my life. Although I would only hear his music for the first time in the mid-’80s, JMJ’s album covers littered the landscape: his 1976 album, ‘Oxygène’, alone has sold over 12 million copies worldwide – one of many landmarks in his career.
I wasn’t into electronic music when I first heard his music, but I knew that this French pioneer’s oeuvre was essential listening, so when I got the chance to listen to his whole discography, approximately 15 years ago, I jumped at the chance. I was suitably impressed, and I played his ‘Concert en Chine’ albums frequently.
So when I stumbled upon his ‘Oxygène in Moscow’ concert DVD at my local library, I was quite curious to see how his music translated to the stage. Just not curious enough: utterly ignorant of the historical context for this concert or of JMJ’s reputation as a live performer, I sat on this disc for ages, passing it by for other DVDs.
Had I known, I would have rushed to it much earlier.
‘Oxygene in Moscow’ is a recording of a concert that JMJ was invited to perform at the Moscow State University on September 6, 1997, for the city’s 850th anniversary. It was a massive event which, at an estimated 3 million audience members, netted him another entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest music concert.
The DVD consists of two one-hour parts: the concert and a documentary on JMJ called ‘Making the Steamroller Fly’. Given that the documentary was partly a behind-the scenes look at the concert itself, I felt that it might be worth seeing it first to get some perspective on the scope and importance of the DVD’s main event.
The Documentary 7.5
‘Making the Steamroller Fly’ is a quick overview of JMJ’s life and career thus far in 1997. From what I can tell it was produced specifically for this home video release and wasn’t broadcast or distributed anywhere else first (I suppose that it made sense to supplement the relatively brief main feature to give buyers more value for their money).
It starts with footage from the Moscow concert, which looks quite impressive. Then we meet the man himself, who boldly states right from the onset that Moscow is the place to be now, that it is the site of a true Renaissance. To reinforce this notion we watch as he wanders around this great city, going to a 1997 art exhibit for inspiration, and talking about how bland and depressing urban architecture is. He also visits the Theramin Institute and plays a theramin.
The documentary explores his past, with JMJ talking about his beginnings as a musician, his first gear and the first sounds he made. He also talks about his mother’s experiences during World War II, as part of the French Resistance and how he discovered jazz through her. He also discusses his father, the legendary motion picture composer Maurice Jarre, briefly, explaining how he was always away for work, how his constant absence meant that he never knew him.
Naturally, he talks about being invited to Moscow for its anniversary. Then the programme goes back to his 1979 show at the Champs Elysee, which gathered one million people – his first record-breaker, followed by his 1981 concerts in China, the Houston concert for the 25th anniversary of NASA, the visually-stunning Lyon concert for the Pope in 1986, and the failure of the Mexico concert for the 1991 solar eclipse – which he glumly says couldn’t be recreated for another 50 years.
The footage from these concerts is indeed awe-inspiring; JMJ is an ambitious man, to say the least. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into good taste: there is stomach-churning footage of him performing with a curved keytar, for instance. My sense is that whereas Brian Eno is a minimalist, JMJ is bombastic: he indulges in massive, elaborate installations – art projects, really. He’s very hands on, obsessive, idiosyncratic, megalomaniacal.
It was interesting to see how respected he is by the people around him: there are interviews with Dreyfus label heads who worked with him, as well as Michel Geiss, an early collaborator, Charlotte Rampling, who was his partner for many years, and many others (including Arthur C. Clarke and his children and stepson). They made a point of noting how little respect electronic music received when he first started, and how no one did what he did; he helped pave the way.
We were also treated to some brief glimpses of the Moscow show, after watching him set-up an coordinate the crew.
The Concert 6.5
The show begins with an introduction by a Russian man overlaid with images of crowds, fireworks, flags, …etc. Then the show began with the first of seven parts of ‘Oxygène’ and ‘Oxygène 2’, with most being from the latter work. Ironically, the other half of the songs that will be performed aren’t even related to ‘Oxygène’ – they’re from different albums. Clearly, calling this ‘Oxygène in Moscow’ is merely a cynical marketing ploy.
Being that it’s electronic music enhanced with a few other musicians, there wasn’t much to the performance. Donned in a snakeskin jackets and pant, a beret and sunglasses, JMJ installed himself on stage without any acknowledgement of the crowds. He spent most of the show playing keyboard, fiddling with knobs, or playing this laser beam instrument that consists of him breaking the beams with his hands to make sounds – the most showy part of the performance.
He didn’t have much of a stage presence; he was stiff, cold. Likely he was just focused on his craft, but I didn’t feel any warmth from him. He only addressed the crowd twice: once to introduce the astronauts of the Mir station (who read a few prepared notes dispassionately), and another time to ask the crowd to observe a moment of silence for Princess Diana, who had died recently and whom he called a friend.
Otherwise there was no interaction. He did attempt to get the crowd to clap a couple of times, but it was an absurd sight; given the size of the stage, he was utterly lost on it and it’s most unlikely that anyone could see him. Not that most of his music was clap-worthy, anyway, despite the slomo shots of young women dancing and some guys head-banging (dancing I can sort of see, but the head-banging was a farcical notion at best).
The only thing that took place on stage, aside from the laser beam thing and theramin solo, both of which were awkward and not especially musical, there was a pair of Mardis Gras-type skeleton that took the stage during one of the later parts of the show, during one of the dance numbers. But that seemed out of place and just weird. Besides that, though, there were no large screens to show the performers, no action, nothing happening on stage worth seeing.
However, the production of this show was CRAZY. Being the 850th anniversary, the organizers blew loads of cash on fireworks and light shows. Throughout the show, there were all sorts of projections on the building behind the musicians. And fireworks. Incessant fireworks. At first I was impressed with it because it started the show with a literal blast, but it eventually became tired; it was no longer special because it was continuous from start to finish.
It was all so bombastic that you became numb to it and most of the impact was lost. The same thing happened with the music, when a large choir came on stage to embellish the last two numbers: as loud as the rest of the music was, the choir couldn’t be heard. It looked as though they were just there flapping their mouths silently. For reasons that escape me, they were completely buried in the mix, defeating the purpose of having them there in the first place.
The other musicians weren’t as buried in the mix, thankfully: the horn section could be heard and the drummer could sometimes be separated from the electronic beats (although his Ringo-style performance lent him no credibility whatsoever, and I wondered why he was there at all). The only other truly essential person on that stage was the other guy playing keyboards and keytar, supporting JMJ while he was doing solos or more simplistic things.
It’s strange because, as much as I enjoy all the studio versions of the pieces that were played that evening, I was bored to tears watching the show. It didn’t help that the editing was done in a ramshackle way, cutting so much that you couldn’t really get a sense of the light show or the performances – let alone savour them. I actually contemplated the notion of having a picture-in-picture presentation, with the visuals on the main screen and the performances in a small side window.
At least then I would have seen what was going on.
Had I known about the concert’s historical context and JMJ’s reputation as a live performer, I would have rushed to this DVD much earlier. But I would have been disappointed. For all the fanfare and the artifice, this disc translates the show quite poorly – it holds none of the excitement that the live show must have delivered to the people who were in attendance. It’s a real shame, a squandered opportunity, because a momentous event like this one deserves more respect.
I highly doubt that I’ll watch this again. The documentary? Probably. But this disc will, at best, be played as background music when I have guests over. And even then, I wonder why I wouldn’t just play JMJ’s studio albums instead, given that some of them remain brilliant to this day. Or, for a concert experience, I could simply pop in both of the ‘Concerts en Chine’ discs. Honestly, the misnomered ‘Oxygène in Moscow’ might just end up gathering dust.
Date of viewing: August 31 + September 10, 2014