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Naked Songs: The Life and Times of Rickie Lee Jones

I diosyncratic singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones easily compels interest throughout "Naked Songs," even if this concert-cum-autobiographical package is more satisfying in its former aspects -- her highly dramatic life story to date being told in terms far brisker than necessary. Short feature could find a limited theatrical berth in urban fan centers, with long-term broadcast (a PBS airing is slated later this year) and vid shelf lives assured.

I diosyncratic singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones easily compels interest throughout “Naked Songs,” even if this concert-cum-autobiographical package is more satisfying in its former aspects — her highly dramatic life story to date being told in terms far brisker than necessary. Short feature could find a limited theatrical berth in urban fan centers, with long-term broadcast (a PBS airing is slated later this year) and vid shelf lives assured.

Perhaps the take-home markets will allow reincorporation of more personal anecdotes; subject’s v.o. narration was recorded over two full days, but only about 15 minutes’ worth is heard here. Too bad, as it’s a fascinating story, told frankly in the terse excerpts that remain. Jones had wanderlust, and tragedy, bred in the bone: One grandfather was “Peg-Leg Jones,” an amputee vaudevillian, another was jailed for stealing chickens. Her own parents separated early on, leaving the girl shuttled between the Southwest, Chicago and Southern California during formative years.

A stint in a Puerto Rican “girl gang,” poverty, first love/heart-break, abusive boyfriends, etc., marked time en route to sudden success — her self-titled ’79 debut disc won dizzy kudos, illustrated here by a funny TV clip in which George Burns and Deborah Harry present the abashed, beret-clad performer with a best new artist award.

But such acclaim didn’t quell Jones’ inner demons. Heavy drinking marred public concerts, and heroin addiction took over her off-stage life until a mid-‘ 80s cleanup. “I was never happy ’til I had a baby . . . It healed that terrible loneliness,” she says, her days now centered on 8-year-old daughter Charlotte.

This saga is related by helmer Ethan A. Russell in brief, chronological snippets between songs, illustrated by family and career photos and tastefully done “dramatic re-creations” using actors (sans dialogue). But while approach works well enough at the start, it soon grows frustrating. There are huge gaps.

Thirteen compositions (all originals, save the standard “Autumn Leaves”) are played in full here, either solo on piano/acoustic guitar or with bassist Rob Wasserman. Sound-stage set is backed by a cyclorama projected with abstract patterns and lighting effects. Stripped-down arrangements highlight Jones’ strengths as an artist perhaps more deeply linked to spoken-word traditions than pop melodic ones.

Though shot on film, pic was screened in projected video, which resulted in some color distortion. Sound recording is excellent; a Reprise CD of these and other live-in-studio tracks was released under the same title earlier this year.

Naked Songs: The Life and Times of Rickie Lee Jones

(DOCU)

  • Production: A Warner Reprise Video presentation. Produced by Brent Hedgecock, Ethan A. Russell. Executive producer, John Beug. Directed, written by Ethan A. Russell.
  • Crew: Camera (concert footage, color). Pat Darrin, (locations, B&W), Russell; editor. Gregory Harrison; music producer, Russ Titelman: art direction, Nick Goodman; sound. Bob Dreebin. Alex Lamm, Mark Linnet. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 10, 1996. Running time: 69 MIN.
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