Getting U2 members to bare their souls on camera, the Police to submit to their last interview before breaking up and President Bill Clinton to discuss Elvis Presley and play his sax sounds like a highlight reel from the 40th anniversary of “60 Minutes.” But these are in fact touchstone moments from the first two seasons of “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …” hosted by the English rocker.
The weekly music-oriented talk show — which airs on the Sundance Channel in the U.S., Channel 4 in the UK, and CTV in Canada — bucks traditional yakker formats by featuring lengthy, unscripted interviews as well as impromptu musical performances that aren’t necessarily designed to beat the drums for a record release or tour. “No one wanted to do ‘The Letterman Show’ night after night,” says executive producer Alex Coletti. “We threw all formats out the window and created something new. Structurally there’s a lot of freedom in ‘Spectacle,’ which makes it exciting for artists. They don’t have to plug a new album.”
The show, which is usually filmed in front of a live audience at New York’s Apollo Theater and occasionally on a soundstage, features Costello’s in-depth, probing questions with musicians from several generations and genres along with the unique jam sessions. Think Kris Kristofferson, Norah Jones, John Mellencamp and Rosanne Cash playing “Me and Bobby McGee” with Costello, or Levon Helm alongside Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson and Allen Toussaint.
“Each week, Costello puts great time and effort into devising the interview questions and creating unique collaborations,” Coletti says.
Elvis writes the full-on treatment 99% of the time. Then we’ll add a bit more structure. But the lion’s share of the show flows from Elvis’ questions.” In the midst of the interviews, Costello will often ask artists to pick up their instruments and perform a relevant song or two, on which the bespectacled singer and his band the Imposters will frequently sit in.
“We got to play with Smokey Robinson in Harlem where he started when he was 15,” Thomas recalls. “We recently got to play with the Edge and Bono, so we were basically in U2 for two or three songs. And we played with Bruce Springsteen in the same way.”
Coletti, who has also produced high-profile segments for the MTV Video Music Awards and Super Bowl halftime shows, is adamant that “Spectacle” is about art and not ratings. “I’m not a big ‘check the ratings’ kind of guy,” he says. “If I’m happy with the quality of the show, then I’m pleased.” This is made easier by the fact that the Sundance Channel’s viewership is not measured by Nielsen ratings.
Thomas points out that although music programs usually appeal to a youth demographic, this one, which is executive produced by singer-songwriter Elton John, has many seasoned fans. “Musicians watch it. All my friends watch it — baby boomers, people in their 40s and 50s. The fact that it’s on the Sundance Channel, you see what kind of waistcoats and necklaces they’re selling.”
The second season of “Spectacle” is set to run through Jan. 27 and will conclude with a two-part interview featuring Springsteen.
When asked whether a third season is in the cards, Coletti demurs.
“There will be some talks (in the new year),” he says. “There are clearly people we’d like to get that we haven’t yet. If the stars line up, we’ll do it again.”