Man on the Moon Soundtrack, R.E.M. (1999)

Fresh off their most recent tour, the remaining three members of R.E.M. have chosen to follow up their vastly underrated album "Up" with their first attempt at a movie soundtrack. The result is "Man on the Moon," an eclectic collection of songs for Milos Forman's upcoming biopic on Andy Kaufman. Featuring 2 new full-fledged R.E.M. tunes along with 6 orchestral pieces written by Peter Buck and Mike Mills, the album will probably please only long-time R.E.M. fans interested in Dead Letter Office-style outtakes. Otherwise, there's not much to write home about.

The highlight of Man on the Moon is also the first (and probably only) single - "The Great Beyond." Featured prominently in this summer's tour, "The Great Beyond" is as classic an R.E.M tune as they come, complete with a driving rock rhythm, minor key power chords, and deliberately obscure Stipe poetics. The sound of the song hearkens back to the pre-"Up" days - Gone are the retro keyboards that marked the past album, in favor of the surging guitars of "Green" and the orchestral sweep of "Automatic." For R.E.M. fans, it's instant classic rock, the latest in a long line of R.E.M anthems ranging from "West of the Fields" and "Driver 8" to "Walk Unafraid."

The other full-fledged new R.E.M. song on the album (1992's "Man on the Moon" is included for obvious reasons) is "This Friendly World," a trio of sorts featuring Michael Stipe, Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey), and Tony Clifton (Jim Carrey). It's one of those saccharine sweet '50's-era ditties - along the lines of "Everybody Hurts", "Strange Currencies", and "At my Most Beautiful" - that is redeemed by Michael Stipe's gravelly, plaintive delivery. Or that is, would be redeemed, were it not for the presence of Carrey channeling Kaufman/Clifton. Where Jim Carrey ends and Andy Kaufman begins, not to mention Kaufman's own nightclub creation Tony Clifton, looks to be the most puzzling cinematic personality dilemma since John Malkovich played John Cusack playing Craig Schwartz playing John Malkovich in Spike Jonze's recent masterpiece Being John Malkovich. Despite this intriguing question, however, Carrey/Kaufman's Clifton completely ruins the song with his swaggering nightclub rendition of the third verse. Then again, I guess Andy probably would have wanted it that way.

The Buck-Mills orchestral score should interest R.E.M. fans, as each of the five new cuts (the sixth is a symphonic reworking of "Man on the Moon" that in terms of creativity puts the recent London Philharmonic version of the same song to shame) sounds quite a bit like melodic left-overs from "Automatic from the People." They are all instrumental, and yet when listening you can't help waiting for Stipe to come in and start signing about forgotten memories (for-GAHHT-in MEH-morieeez) or some other similar quintessentially R.E.M topic.

Now, I missed Andy Kaufman by a generation - he is only known to me as Ladka from "Taxi" and from several hagriographic retrospectives. To me, he remains not much more than an oddball comic with a knack for raising kitsch to the level of performance art. Thus, the remainder of the album - Tony Clifton murdering "I Will Survive" and either Carrey or Kaufman crooning "One More Song For You" and "Rose Marie", not to mention the theme from "Taxi" - did absolutely nothing for me. For an older listener, these cuts might invoke some nostalgia, although I doubt it. As for the dialogue snippets that separate each song on the album, they are entirely forgettable and completely unnecessary.

In sum, if you love R.E.M., this is an enjoyable if spotty holiday treat. Otherwise, skip it.

[First appeared on Epinions, 1999.]

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