Running short on inspiration for gifts as the 11th hour of holiday shopping approaches? Consider these ideas for noteworthy DVDs that might have escaped your attention.
Pop music DVDs are as plentiful and varied as the far-reaching field they spring from. Here are several spotlighting fallen heroes, one showcasing a tragically underappreciated band and one celebrating an inspired transatlantic pairing.
"Hot as a Pistol, Keen as a Blade" (Hip-O, $19.98). Elvis Costello and celebrated New Orleans producer-songwriter Allen Toussaint collaborated on one of the year's most powerful albums, "The River in Reverse," much of which reflects on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. This DVD captures two hours' worth of their joint concert tour from a performance in Montreal, recorded in 5.1 surround sound. In addition to performances of eight songs from the "River" album, the show included new arrangements of several of each artist's signature songs, among them Costello's "Watching the Detectives," "Alison" and "Clubland," and Toussaint's "Fortune Teller" and "A Certain Girl."
"Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows" (Image Entertainment, $29.99). Pop's other Elvis gets the same treatment in this three-disc set that Image gave the Fab Four in 2003, placing those historic performances in the cultural context of the day. These clips have been shown repeatedly, but when you see Elvis vibrating to the point where he seems on the verge of bursting at the seams in the same show with novelty acts such as Senor Wences and the Amin Brothers acrobatic duo, Presley's revolutionary appeal is all the more evident.
"New York Doll" (First Independent, $19.98). You won't find a more surprising or poignant rock documentary than director Greg Whiteley's portrait of Arthur "Killer" Kane, the bassist of one of rock's wildest bands, the New York Dolls. Picking up Kane's life trajectory after that notorious band blew apart in the 1970s, the film follows his completely unexpected conversion to Mormonism and his bittersweet reunion with his former bandmates earlier this decade.
"Crowded House: Farewell to the World" (EMI, $29.98). A two-disc set (due Jan. 16) captures the New Zealand band's final concert on its home turf in 1996, running through two dozen songs, among them some of the catchiest and most melodically fresh tunes since the heyday of the Beatles. A second disc includes a behind-the-scenes documentary as well as an Australian TV documentary looking at the motivations for the band's breakup. There's also some commentary from the band members on the 2005 suicide of drummer Paul Hester.
-- Randy Lewis
"Cuban Pianists: The History of Latin Jazz" (EFORFILMS, $29.95). Cuba is the country with the most pianists per capita, as one observer blankly states in this informative two-disc documentary. With rare historical footage, the work traces what amounts to a dynasty of Cuban piano, from seminal figures such as Lily Martinez and Bebo Valdes to contemporary prodigies such as Gonzalo Rubalcaba and the phenomenal whiz kid, Aldo Lopez Gavilan. The hazy quality of the second disc doesn't obscure the brilliance of the 13 featured performances.
"Ricky Martin: MTV Unplugged" (Sony BMG $17.98). Forget the bon bon and the vida loca. This acoustic set filmed for MTV reveals a mature Martin surrounded by terrific musicians, many from his native Puerto Rico. He completely revamps pre-crossover hits such as "Maria" and "La Bomba," turning them into irresistible salsa numbers. But the real highlight is the new ballad "Tu Recuerdo," featuring a stirring duet with Mari, lead singer of Spain's Chambao, the marvelous flamenco chill band.
"Rocio Durcal: En Concierto Inolvidable" (BMG, $14.98). Since Spanish singer Durcal died earlier this year, it's well worth recalling why she was one of the greatest pop singers in the Spanish language. This concert was filmed in Mexico City in 2002, when Durcal returned to touring after battling cancer. But it could have been almost any show. She always performed at her best: passionate, elegant and moving. Includes a discography and filmed interview.
"!Maravilloso! Un Siglo del Tenor Continental Don Pedro Vargas" (Sony, $24.98). Vargas was Mexico's classy crooner, a tuxedoed throwback to a more genteel pop era. The rotund tenor had a voice as smooth and mellow as Bing Crosby's but with a dash of Pavarotti's power, as comfortable with an orchestra as with a mariachi. This DVD, released for what would have been his 100th birthday, features clips from his TV show from the '60s and '70s, with settings that now seem campy. A classic of a bygone era. The companion CD includes 22 more songs.
"Ahi-Nama En Cuba" (Ahi-Nama, $18.95). A compilation of contemporary Cuban music videos from the groundbreaking San Fernando Valley-based label Ahi-Nama Music, which recorded and imported some of the best bands of the island's dance music explosion of the '90s. Among them: Los Van Van, Bamboleo and IssacDelgado, featured in a live performance. Directed by label owner Jimmy Maslon, the videos are imaginative, fun and exciting. Just like the music.
-- Agustin Gurza
Smart television comes in many forms (sometimes disguised as silly).
"Slings and Arrows," Seasons 1 and 2 (Acorn Media, $29.99 per season). This Canadian series, set backstage at a Shakespeare theater festival haunted by the ghost of its former director, is funny, moving, romantic and suspenseful, and book-smart without being stuffy. Imported to American television by the Sundance Channel, each six-hour season mixes a sprawling cast with narrative focus, everything moving toward a common conclusion without padding or pointless digressions. "Must the show go on?" is the question it asks. Season 1 details a production of "Hamlet," Season 2, "Macbeth." (Watch them to prep for the next series, about "King Lear.")
"The Addams Family: Volume One" (MGM, $29.98). They're creepy and they're kooky, sure. Mysterious and spooky, obviously. But "The Addams Family," the mid-'60s sitcom realization of New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams' previously nameless haunted household, is at bottom a story of familial support and love of life -- as fond as they are of the dark, dynamite and disaster, they are fundamentally creatures of bottomless goodwill, generosity and enthusiasm. ("Capital idea!" is Gomez Addams' catchphrase.) And in addition to being both good parents and dutiful children, Gomez and Morticia were possibly TV's first really frisky couple ("Tish -- you spoke French!"). With Vic Mizzy's great harpsichord-driven score.
"That's My Bush! The Definitive Collection" (Paramount Home Video, $26.99). I make no claims for this short-lived 2001 Comedy Central series (from "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) being any good or actually funny, but its imagining of the actual sitting president as the main character in a pointedly witless sitcom does seem weirdly apt. Not wholly original nor politically acute -- to the extent it's about anything, it's about TV -- it's nevertheless worth seeing for Timothy Bottoms' uncanny performance as a frantic, dimwitted but well-meaning husband and chief executive in way over his head.
-- Robert Lloyd