By now it's a given that Paul Westerberg is a major songwriting talent and one of the great instinctual rock & rollers of his generation, but it has long been a source of frustration that much of the time Westerberg would rather play the fool than look his audience in the eye as he bares his soul. The massive drinking during his days with the Replacements, the goofy clothes, the flyaway hair, the stubborn refusal to display much concern for his craft, the inability to say much of anything without undercutting himself with a giggle or a smirk -- Westerberg has always been at war with the serious and deeply confessional side of his songwriting that comes to the surface despite himself, and this unwittingly becomes the focus of Come Feel Me Tremble, a ragtag documentary that follows Westerberg on the road as he plays theaters and record stores in support of his 2002 album Stereo. The film opens with Westerberg announcing that he's about to tell us the secret of his songwriting, and after a few minutes of goofing with the camera and toying with his cigar, he starts to talk -- just as we cut to something else. Elsewhere, Westerberg tosses off the Replacements' career and recorded legacy with a few random words, and briefly touches upon personal matters (his relationship with his father, the death of a friend) in so vague a manner that we never find out just what he thinks, even though it's obvious these things truly matter to him. Come Feel Me Tremble works best when it simply shows us Paul Westerberg singing his great songs for his fans, and for the most part he sings them quite well; much of the footage was shot by fans with camcorders and donated to Westerberg (who co-directed under the nom de video Otto Zithromax), and while the technical quality is shaky, it also gives a homey visual funk to the project that seems like an appropriate corollary to the homebrewed sound of his recent work (which, in an overlong sequence, we see him recording in his crude basement studio) and the solo-electric-guitar buzz of his live shows. Come Feel Me Tremble is fine as a tour souvenir from an underappreciated talent, but as an insight into the workings of a truly gifted songwriter, it feels like a sadly wasted opportunity...though once he sings "I Will Dare" or "Let the Bad Times Roll," you'll probably be ready to forgive him.
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