In 1989, John Cale and Brian Eno met in Moscow to record an album combining the orchestrations of a Soviet pop-classical symphony with the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Cale—ever eager to add an extra creative element—invited filmmaker Rob Nilsson to shoot a documentary about the sessions. But when Eno arrived and found cameras everywhere, he revolted, and Nilsson had to change his approach, relying on surveillance cameras along with a lot of scenes of his own crew debating what to do next.
Words For The Dying isn't really about Eno's stubbornness or Cale's vision; it's more about what it's like to see the world from the inside of a series of recording studios and practice spaces, at a time when the global political and cultural situation is shifting rapidly. Nilsson tags the film as "an interpretation of something that happened," and what's engaging about Words For The Dying are the multiple layers of distance between the original event and this DVD. The film was assembled in 1990, from footage shot on video and converted to murky black-and-white—which means the image now looks like a product of its time as well as a record of it. And while there's a certain amount of "this is the best we could get" to the footage in Words, that ramshackle quality is clearly reflective of what Nilsson, Cale, and Eno went through.
As for the music, well, it's hardly Cale or Eno's best work. The odd combination of sounds and concepts comes off as forced, and Cale appears to be in over his head when he's trying to explain to a Russian musician that he wants a sound "like a wounded puma," or when he's swearing at a children's choir after a technical difficulty. But Words For The Dying still rings true in showing what it's like inside the bubble of people who make art out of everything—even their accidents.
Key features: A recent, appropriately cruddy-looking interview with Nilsson.