Hail to the Queen
A Crazy Little Thing Called Tribute Albums

I first heard about My Date With Drew about two years ago. There was a brief mention in Entertainment Weekly or someplace about this guy who’d made a movie about his quest to meet Drew Barrymore, and I thought it sounded like a cute idea. And then I heard nothing about it again, and assumed it had fallen prey to the ravages of the Hollywood system. Ninety percent of the good ideas never seem to make it past the development stage, whereas it sometimes seems like producers snatch up any bad idea they can find, and the worse the idea, the better.

It turns out, My Date With Drew has been done for a couple of years, and has played to festival audiences since then, looking for a distributor. I heard about it again last month, from my friend Mike Lachance. As fate would have it, Mike knows Brian Herzlinger and his Drew Crew cohorts, and has been urging his friends to see the film. Happily, I complied this week, and I have to say, it’s a cool little flick. It’s also, in its small way, a pretty inspiring one.

Here’s the back story. Brian Herzlinger has had a crush on Drew Barrymore since both of them were in grade school, and he counts her among his inspirations to move to Los Angeles and pursue a film career. So here he is, broke and floundering, when he wins $1,100 on a game show. (The winning answer? “Drew Barrymore,” of course.) He figures he can spend the next month as he is now, or he can take that 1.1 grand and do something fascinating. He decides to give himself one month to get a date with Drew Barrymore, and to document the whole bizarre process.

Why one month? That’s the funny part. Herzlinger and his friends can’t afford a video camera, so they go to Circuit City and take advantage of their 30-day return policy. They buy a camera on credit, planning to return it 30 days later, hopefully with the movie completed. It’s that kind of weird ingenuity that powers the film, as Herzlinger tries every avenue available to him (and some that aren’t) to snag a date with Drew. Watching their increasingly desperate tactics is often hilarious, but never less than fun.

Whether or not you respond to My Date With Drew will depend on two things. First, you have to like Brian Herzlinger, since he’s in every scene, and he exposes his life and personality in great detail. I found him charming and funny, but I can see how some would find him irritating. Second, I think it helps to have a dream of your own, since that lends resonance to Herzlinger’s quest. On one level, Drew is a film about a regular guy who wants to meet a movie star, and makes it happen. On another, though, it’s the story of a regular guy who wants to be a movie star, and against even greater odds, he makes that happen, too. Brian and his film are easy to relate to, and by the end, you’re sharing in his dream, and pulling for it, and your own, to come true.

Check out the site here.

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My afternoon showing of Drew, for which I was the only attendee, was preceded by literally 20 minutes of trailers. I don’t mind that – I would sit through two hours of trailers, provided that some of them at least are for interesting films. This time, though, I suffered through sneak peeks at one painful-looking pseudo-comedy after another, full of groin kicks and forced jokes. That is, right up until the last one – my first big-screen look at Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown.

I am now jazzed beyond belief for this film.

I can’t explain my love for Cameron Crowe’s movies. It’s an intangible, non-quantifiable love. But here’s one way to put it, one that will undoubtedly kill all my credibility. You know that feeling you get after a particularly great, moving trailer? That goosebumpy, spine-shivery, bubbling, giggly sense of anticipation? Crowe is one of the only directors I have encountered that can extend the trailer feeling to his whole movie. He’s been off before – Singles and Vanilla Sky are certainly not his best – but when he’s on, he speaks right to that warm, beautiful center of people. I can’t imagine movies more in love with life than …Say Anything and Almost Famous, so grateful and generous and free of falsehood.

And it looks like Elizabethtown is another home run. It’s been a while since I’ve responded emotionally to a movie trailer, but I’m already in love with this film. If the movie is as heartfelt and funny as the preview, it will be my favorite of the year, hands down.

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Tribute albums are a bad idea.

That’s one of those universal truisms. I don’t know who came up with the idea of tribute records, but they’re an inherently strange concept: We will honor this band and their songs by taking obviously inferior cracks at performing those songs ourselves, even though the band’s catalog is, in most cases, readily available. They’re only useful as gateway drugs – fans of whatever pop-punk group is in the charts this month might try out a tribute because they’re on it, and through that purchase, they may get turned on to the honoree’s original albums.

But buying tribute albums expecting free-standing, engrossing listens in their own right is a fool’s game. Very often, the participants will have an overwhelming affection for the band being honored, and will attempt note-for-note covers that only highlight how much better the originals are. Either that, or the cover versions will so reinvent the originals, in an attempt to avoid that comparison, that they become unrecognizable, and then, what’s the point? I have bought a few good tributes here and there, but the lion’s share I have heard are pretty much useless.

With that in mind, though, I’m going to recommend Killer Queen, a self-explanatory tribute that just came out this week. There was no question that I was going to buy this – those who know me can attest that I am an enormous Queen fan. I have every album memorized, and I even wrote a massive, melodramatic farewell to Freddie Mercury when I was 18. My high school band recorded it with such a somber, self-serious attitude that I can’t help but think Mercury would have hated it to bits.

While a lot of attention was always lavished on Mercury’s flamboyant nature and stage presence, he deserves a lot more respect than he gets as a musician and songwriter. The Queen catalog is full of brilliant, difficult, melodic songs, and most of the best of them are Mercury’s. They were certainly over the top, campy, and dramatic, but the core of Queen was superb songs and arrangements. Their use of layered vocals and guitar choirs became their trademark, and they did that sort of thing so well that, listening to their stuff, you get no sense of just how hard it is to sing and play all those parts, especially over such tricky chords.

It’s no surprise that guitarist Brian May’s songs get nearly equal billing with Mercury’s on Killer Queen – they rock harder, and they’re easier to play. Los Lobos, for example, simply slam their way through his bluesy “Sleeping on the Sidewalk,” and Floridians Shinedown rock “Tie Your Mother Down” like they’ve been playing it for years. (Which they may have been.) The record closes with all-female folk-rockers Antigone Rising taking on “Fat Bottomed Girls,” a funny twist that is nevertheless played straight. Well, as straight as a song called “Fat Bottomed Girls” can be played, at any rate…

Mercury’s more popular numbers get workouts here, of course. Sum 41’s “Killer Queen” is amazing, simply because it sounds nothing like Sum 41. There are two takes on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” one by American Idol contestant Constantine M., and one by the Flaming Lips, and as much as I hate to praise anything that has to do with Simon Cowell, I like Constantine’s much better. First off, he can handle the vocal parts, and lead Lip Wayne Coyne can’t, at all. Second, the arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is nigh-on perfect just as it appeared on A Night at the Opera, and Constantine sticks closer to it. Still, neither of these versions can hold a candle to the original.

So why am I recommending this? Because hiding between the obvious choices are some genuine surprises, some new takes on forgotten favorites. Jason Mraz, for example, dances his way through “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” one of Mercury’s best show tunes. Rooney does a smashing version of “Death on Two Legs,” even capping it with a snippet from “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon.” Breaking Benjamin take “Who Wants to Live Forever,” one of my personal favorite May songs, and strip it of its orchestral colors, but not its melodic power. Even Be Your Own Pet’s punky slam through “Bicycle Race” is nifty.

There are missteps – Gavin DeGraw opens the record with a hoarse take on “We Are the Champions” that sounds anything but triumphant, and Josh Homme joins Eleven to slow down and all but ruin “Stone Cold Crazy.” But those are balanced out with winners like Jon Brion’s characteristically quirky version of “Play the Game,” and Joss Stone’s soulful rewrite of “Under Pressure.” Perhaps my favorite inclusion is Ingram Hill’s folksy, perfect read of “39,” a song that would have been thoroughly overlooked on most tribute records.

Most of all, though, this record just drips with love for Queen and their music, and since I have a fair portion of that myself, I respond to it in these versions. Is any of this essential listening? Of course not. But it’s a lot more fun than I expected, and if it gets even one Gavin DeGraw or Sum 41 fan to pick up some Queen albums, then I’m for it. I expected to agree with Killer Queen’s existence, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I do.

I have one quibble, and I’ve kept it until the end, so as not to spoil an otherwise positive review. The liner notes, in their apparent zeal to promote the new tour with Paul Rodgers and the continuing commercial viability of the band, refer to Mercury as Queen’s “original singer.” I’m sorry, but no way. He is their only singer – without Mercury, it’s not Queen, and now that he’s gone, the best thing May and company could do is lay the name to rest. Rodgers may try on Mercury’s spangled jumpsuits for this tour, but he will never, ever be Queen’s singer. No one else will, and even suggesting that Mercury’s place in the band is one that any other musician could simply step into is insulting.

They were great. For more than 20 years, they were great. Killer Queen and the current tour may give you some inkling about how great they were, but seriously – accept no substitutes. If you haven’t heard the Queen catalog, you owe it to yourself as a music fan to find out what all these artists on this tribute album are talking about.

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Quick apologies to Melissa Maxwell – she was looking forward to my take on the new Richard Thompson, as promised last week. I’m still absorbing it, and I should have a review ready to go next time. Also on the horizon, the Cowboy Junkies, the New Pornographers, Death Cab for Cutie and Joy Electric.

See you in line Tuesday morning.