Talk about a midlife crisis. NBC’s “Garth Brooks … In the Life of Chris Gaines” spotlights America’s favorite cowboy as he works through some obvious emotional baggage. The industry’s surest bet sheds his Wranglers and bolo tie for hipper duds and a new sound, and the result is as unimpressive as Pat Boone’s dive into heavy metal. While identity shifts are nothing unusual for entertainers — David Bowie befriended Ziggy Stardust and Andy Kaufman conceived Tony Clifton — Brooks, it seems, is just living out an experimental fantasy and using us as guinea pigs. It’s unlikely that die-hard admirers will take to this career transformation, and most will see this as one big alter ego trip.
Brooks and tune producer Babyface are collaborating on a Paramount pic in development called “The Lamb,” which features fictional rock ‘n’ roll rebel Chris Gaines. To rev up the hype machine, Brooks decided to adopt this personality for his current album, which bears the same name as this one-hour Peacock special.
And the dude has a helluva background: Born in Australia, Gaines’ debut record, “Straight Jacket,” spent 224 weeks on Billboard’s top 200 chart. After winning a Grammy, a car crash almost ended his life, but now he’s back with a “Greatest Hits” disc. All of these faux factoids are peppered throughout the broadcast, sandwiched between Garth Brooks interviews and Gaines in concert.
So what’s the gimmick? There really is none, and that’s the problem. About the only thing noticeably different between the two crooners is that Brooks as Gaines is wearing a black shirt and no hat onstage. (On his album cover he’s a sunken-cheeked brooder with jet-black locks). There’s no Spinal Tap playfulness. There’s no depth or intrigue. It’s one guy singing like another guy, and both are trying too hard.
The only sharp moment comes when Brooks explores Gaines’ early work with his fictional bubble gum band, Crush. The mockumentary footage recalls MTV’s salad days, complete with bad hair.
Musically, Brooks may be able to rile up a boot-wearin’ bunch and belt out country ballads, but his pop is very humdrum. The music is still full-bodied but Brooks is out of his element, relying more on simplified beats and regular rhythms than on creativity; if Brooks is going for a unique image, he has chosen the least complex route. The high notes include “Get Real” — a refreshing take on the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” — and “White Flag.”
If nothing else, this is a gutsy move, especially since Brooks disses his hard-core followers in a big way. “Some of my fans will not come along for the ride,” he says, “but that’s cool.” How many multiplatinum artists would alienate millions of people on purpose? And he thumbs his nose at convention more than once; watching him flip the bird to his adoring crowd is very peculiar. Both of these men have issues.
Tech credits are fine, but this should have been much more than just another performance piece.