The Cars – Unlocked (2006): Movies

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Ric Ocasek, the rail-thin co-leader of the Cars, spent months going through VHS and Betamax tapes to compile this sweeping video retrospective.

I’m sure that he simply set out to pay tribute to his old band. Until very recently, that’s been sorely needed: New wave, then mainstream, the Cars for a while seemed to make almost no ripple on successive generations — despite selling 30 million records and charting 20 Top 40 singles. Only with the belated debuts of acts like the Killers and Weezer has this band’s influence become obvious.

But I was struck by something more elemental on “Unlocked,” something that had little to do with legacy building for the Cars. We find among the footage not just concert highlights, soundcheck rehearsals and contemporary interviews but also a new appreciation for Ocasek’s partnership with singer/bassist Benjamin Orr.

Ocasek, alone now after Orr’s 2000 passing from pancreatic cancer, has described tearful moments as his ghostly image played across the editing screen. Orr’s presence in “Unlocked,” both on stage and during nostalgic moments of outtake intimacy, is deeply felt.

It’s an intriguing development for a band that so often presented itself with detached modernity. The DVD boasts a familiar, friendly humor — in particular, as is typical with bands that go supernova, earlier on while the Cars tried to make their way. Much of this disc’s most fascinating collected works are from home movies, and Ocasek does a terrific job of drawing out a more personal portrait. Picture the cool and collected Cars amidst an actual food fight.

There is, of course, some music too: The original “Unlocked” DVD features 25 songs, recorded between 1978-87; a deluxe package also includes 14 digitally remastered concert performances that make up the Cars’ first-ever live album. And many of these tunes (“Magic,” “Good Times Roll,” “You Might Think,” My Best Friend’s Girl”) showcase the quirky, chirpy Ocasek front and center.

Yet Orr, absent but never really gone, looms over the project. Some say it’s kept Ocasek away from subsequent efforts at reuniting the Cars.

Ocasek has made a quiet go at a solo career, but managed more success on the other side of the board. He worked on “Unlocked” between stints as a producer for a number of with-it bands of the moment, including No Doubt, Hole, Jonathan Richman, Bad Religion and Guided by Voices, among others.

There’s been nothing on the scale of his work with Orr — which makes the effort Ocasek made in compiling this all the more important. Whether he meant to or not, “Unlocked” completes Orr’s legacy.

A remarkable singer, Orr (real name: Benjamin Orzechowski) had a depth and darkness that Ocasek couldn’t come close to. He scuffed up the Cars’ early period stuff, then provided an important emotional underpinning during its subsequent MTV-era heyday — a period when the group was too often too slick.

Ocasek, in almost every case, wrote the lyrics, yet Orr would usually own their interpretation. (Ocasek paid him appropriate tribute, by the way, on the song “Silver” from his 2005 solo release “Nexterday.”) In all, the Cars scored one gold, three platinum, and three multi-platinum albums — and each was pushed along by Orr’s vocal work, in a catalog that included “Just What I Needed,” “Moving in Stereo/All Mixed Up” (embedded, from a 1979 concert, below), “Let’s Go,” “Bye, Bye Love,” “Candy-O,” and the band’s highest charter at No. 3, “Drive.”

Orr also recorded a memorable late-1980s solo CD, “The Lace” (which spawned a Top 30 single with “Stay The Night”). But he was always better with Ocasek. It went both ways. Their bond, starting with embryonic work as a duo in Columbus, Ohio and later in Boston, would provide the underpinnings for the Cars from the first.

This DVD, filled with the small, good things that make up a friendship, illustrates how it always will.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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