The Telegraph: Gerard O'Donovan: 8th November 2013.
Mark Kidel’s film was a deftly constructed trip through a restless, shape-shifting career, says Gerard O'Donovan
There was a moment in Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance when the man born Declan MacManus recalled how, starting out in the Seventies, choosing the name Elvis as part of his musical persona was “almost a heresy”. It chimed exactly with my own experience of seeing him for the first time back then when even with the iconoclasm of punk raging all around the chutzpah of claiming The King’s name seemed an extraordinarily ambitious statement of intent (not least for a spotty youth in a bad suit and geeky Joe 90 specs). And yet this Elvis lived up to his own billing, crafting some of the most memorable songs of the late Seventies and Eighties, and gaining a reputation as a great songwriter, collaborator and musical reinventor of both himself and other people’s music.
Mark Kidel’s film was a deftly constructed trip through a restless, shape-shifting career, allowing Costello to revisit significant moments of his past. But it couldn’t be called a full biography as it only ever touched on the personal in order to shed light on the musical journey. Even so, it was particularly good at bringing out the extent to which Costello was drenched in music from birth, and the enormous influence his musician father Ross (a stalwart of the Joe Loss Orchestra) had not only on his tastes but also his rebellious determination not to sing “other people’s songs” but to write and perform his own.
Captured brilliantly was the intensity and aggression of Costello’s early years with the Attractions (though not so well the vulnerable romantic who always peered out from underneath) and his increasing disillusionment with fame, the rock’n’roll lifestyle and the industry's demands for hit after hit. Always you sensed the shadow of young Declan’s father behind Costello’s restlessness, the yearning to move on and stretch the boundaries of his talent - whether by appropriating country, jazz or classical forms, or collaborating with the likes of Paul McCartney, T-Bone Burnett, Allen Toussaint and the Brodsky Quartet.
There were some impressive and incisive contributions, from McCartney and Burnett to early collaborators like Nick Lowe and Steve Nieve. But we rarely got a sense of what else might have been at work in Costello’s life other than this almost coldly relentless quest for musical reinvention. Few sources were offered for the other essential part of his creative gift, the deep emotion of so many of his lyrics. In the end we left Costello looking like at man who, at 59, is more at peace than ever with himself and his achievements, yet still something of an enigma. Perhaps the extended, 90-minute version of Kidel’s film, which BBC Four airs on Saturday November 9 at 11.45pm, will shed further light for those of us curious enough to invest the extra half hour.