On a windy night in December, Brazilian singer-songwriter and actor Seu Jorge played the last of three sold-out shows at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Jorge was re-adorned in the pale blue tracksuit and red cap get-up made infamous by the card-carrying members of Team Zissou in Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and perched on a chair among oh-so bijou stage dressing (coils of hemp rope, gas lanterns, a dainty ships wheel, and other such flotsam and jetsam). Despite the forced incongruity of his robust presence dressed and decked in these clichéd twee trappings, Jorge was persistently affable as he wound his way through a collection of tales and gags culled from his on-set experience of the filming of Life Aquatic, along with the acoustic, Portuguese-language David Bowie covers that were a significant component of the film’s sharp-edged, posh-stoner atmosphere. The show, billed as “The Life Aquatic / A Tribute to David Bowie,” was, as its title suggests, clumsy and mawkish in conception, and was saved from complete triviality by the sheer friendliness of Jorge’s performance.
His stories — told in his rich, lilting baritone — were lightweight and witty, not terribly complex, but comfortable. There was the story of a pregnant Cate Blanchett, working 12-hour days on set, beaming and beautiful, and how Jorge, inspired, dedicated his translation of “Lady Stardust” to her. Or the one in which Wes Anderson heard Jorge’s cover of “Starman,” and asked him to play it again, then again, then again — ten times in succession. There was an inherent half-bragging, half-awed aspect to these stories, but they were told with such casual aplomb it was impossible not to be charmed. Jorge’s music followed in like fashion. His covers play to full beachy bonfire effect, but are saved from Jack Johnson-level damnation (eighth circle, bolgia one — panderers and seducers) by the dash of wryness in the warmth and a delivery free of affectation. His guitar is confident and capable — nuanced enough, straightforward enough.
But then there’s the matter of source material. David Bowie is Jorge’s maker and his doom, the source of his fame (at least in this country, and certainly to the Ace Hotel audience), and the rope that binds him. In the year since his death, Bowie’s impact has been reaffirmed to a staggering degree — Bowie as fashion/lifestyle icon, Bowie as artist, Bowie as sex symbol, Bowie as musician, and most of all, Bowie as songwriter. Bowie’s oeuvre is surely one of the most respected — and most popular — of the 20th century. His songs are so imbued with semen, sass, sophistication, intelligence, and so often overlaid with such thrusting danceability, that a high school orchestra could cover Bowie to great effect. That’s not to take anything away from Jorge — his covers are certainly some of the best out there — but it also doesn’t add much to his prestige. At best, Jorge’s Bowie covers are a pleasant reimagining; a Starbucks counter release with just enough flair of exoticism to make it feel daring to the fainthearted. In truth, there is nothing daring about rehashing well-known tunes; there is only the salve of familiarity.
Which is why, as a fulfillment of its billing — a tribute — the concert was a disappointment. Jorge’s Bowie is emotive, but ultimately docile, monotone, safe; the very antithesis of Bowie’s vision and music. Jorge’s concern was more the recounting of Life Aquatic glory than it was the appreciation of Bowie as cultural honcho. His claim that the tour was a joint dedication to Bowie and to Jorge’s father (they died within days of each other) is undoubtedly true and a nice sentiment, but with little to no attention paid to the direct importance of Bowie to Jorge’s life, the result was shallow spectacle…but without the spectacle. Jorge would have been smart (and the idea of a tribute concert would have been better served) to incorporate his own material alongside the covers, and to discuss Bowie’s influence on his work, of which there is ample evidence. In that way, Jorge would have legitimized his worth as a musician who reacts and responds to the canon; not just a dull busker playing for a little coin.
That said, the audience was reverent. Red caps dotted the crowd, and sharp intakes of breath and gasps of “Wow!” were in chorus throughout the theater. They were rapt by Jorge’s presence, awed by his performance. Many sang along (or, more accurately, hummed along), many swayed rhythmically in their seats, and one or two, overcome with one terrifically acute emotion or another, teared up.
It’s an interesting phenomenon — the hero worship of a hero worshipper. What is to be gained by the rehashing of songs past, the repetition and mock revival of lost gods? Is it simply that a god has indeed been lost, and thus warrants a communal mourning? The Ace Hotel as Wailing Wall against which we publicly lament the destruction of the Temple of Bowie? Or is it one of the steps in a cultural Five Steps of Grieving? A twisted form of bargaining (i.e. settling) in which we take any sliver of familiarity in exchange for a physical manifestation of the subject of our remorse?
Or maybe it has nothing to do with Bowie. Maybe during this most trying of times for urban, liberal America there is a desire to look back to simpler times, say…2004, when a young auteur released his fourth feature film. A film (like its maker) saturated with casual, quirky affluence — a veritable Wonderland where Bill Murrays and Owen Wilsons never grow up, where Anjelica Hustons and Cate Blanchetts are ever-distinguished, ever-regal women of fortitude and grace, where usually-goofy Jeff Goldblums are villains and usually-villainous Willem Dafoes are goofballs, a perfect world safe beneath the waves. Pre-recession, pre-border walls, post-9/11, yes, and sure, we had Al Qaeda, but we didn’t have ISIL…and sure we had W., but (good god!) we didn’t have The Donald. Looking back, it seems near idyllic, and it comes complete with its own soundtrack courtesy of our good friend, ever quirky yet tranquil, Seu Jorge.
Today we face what many see as crisis — political, social, and cultural. During such times it is easy to chase what is comfortable and familiar, nostalgic. But in order to survive — rather, in order to advance through times like this we need more innovation, less recreation; more vision, less revival. In essence, less Life Aquatic, more life.