Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Music to See By

“The pursuit of perfection” is quite a haughty tagline, and in Lexus’s case, it’s said with more than a drop of ‘tude. But over the years it seems to have worked, even inspiring some near-perfect ad work.

A recent fave of mine—with an unfortunately bad ending—showed old people fondly recalling outdated gadgets. “If you held the rabbit ears in exactly the right position…” one guy, sitting in his backyard, explained. Another said, “Then the calculators got smaller and smaller,” holding up his hands to show the size of a bread box. Each person was caught mid-conversation, and the cuts were delightful. I was loving it—until some smug fortysomething bearded dude in an LS sedan rolled up. “I used to have to parallel park myself,” he says, with a certain amount of amazed entitlement. Then we see the steering wheel turning on its own and the car starting to park as he sits stock-still, like the Lincoln Memorial.

Granted, it was demoing an amazing new feature, but deep-thinking, self-parking man took the steam out of the previous fun with his creepy, mentalist approach. It’s as if he were adhering to The Secret (basically, visualize it and it will come).

The carmaker’s three latest spots also boast the deep-thinker-sits-in-a-Lexus approach to sell another amazing technology. This time, it’s the brand’s exclusive “lifelike sound imaging”—a music system that can “dimensionalize” sound or, as the tagline expresses it, “Music you can see.” But these spots brim with life all the way through. They’re fresh, compelling and pitch perfect.

Unscripted mini-tutorials in music, they offer something rare: artists speaking intelligently about “the process.”

You’d think watching people listen to music with their eyes closed would be a recipe for disaster (or PBS). But these spots are so alive and kinetic that their energy could make any viewer think, “Hey, I have ears, I can be an artist, too.”

My favorite spot by far features Elvis Costello. He just kills. Maybe it’s the marriage and baby, but the former angry man comes off as kindly, wise and animated (I guess his “aim is true”). The artists were asked to pick a song not their own, and to talk about it as they listened to it. He seems to be a natural teacher. His choice of music is the most surprising and his way with words is, well, off-the-charts clever. If nothing else, the spot could win Most Original Opening, 2007. It starts with a blast of the most dramatic part of the Ninth Symphony. “Beethoven,” Costello says with his inimitable deadpan, “he wrote a few toe tappers.” I’ve learned something already.

“When he wrote this, he’d lost his hearing, poor man, so he was imagining this,” Costello continues, and now we can see that he’s in the backseat of an LS 450 L. “When you close your eyes, you can see the whole orchestra in front of you. You find yourself lost in it and following it.”

So we have a guy talking about music that you can get lost in, composed by a deaf guy. There’s something poetic in that.

“It doesn’t all come at you at once. It’s not like a rock ‘n’ roll record,” Costello says. “But it’s exciting, like a rock ‘n’ roll record.”

Throughout, we see tight shots—starting with a profile—of the Alison writer’s face. He really holds the screen. (Plus, who knew he had such a cute nose?) It ends with a new twist on air guitar—air conducting, as Costello rocks out to Beethoven and laughs. It’s a new kind of classical rebellion, and the spot sells us on him and the car.

The commercial featuring Mrs. Costello, a.k.a. Diana Krall, is a lot quieter and more internal—like jazz itself. She’s in the front seat of an SC 430 listening to “Night Train” by Oscar Peterson, an undervalued jazz composer. It’s a brilliant choice. “I first heard this song when I was about 15-years-old listening to Oscar Peterson at the Orpheum in Vancouver,” she says. “Completely blown away. I knew right then that I wanted to be a jazz musician.” The close-ups are interesting—she’s beautiful in a more-delicate-than-Jenna-Elfman kind of way. And she comes off as authentic and thoughtful, but clearly not the wordsmith her husband is. It’s clear that she feels it in her fingers and says, almost apologetically, “It still moves me to the point where I can’t express it except on the piano.”

In his spot, John Legend also makes an unexpected and delightful choice of music: “Backlash Blues,” performed by Nina Simone. But what he says is not terribly insightful or interesting. “When this song comes on you can immediately feel it. The groove kind of builds from something minimal. It kind of chugs along. It’s, like, it’s like a train that’s building up steam,” he says from the backseat of a GX 470. The spot has the same cool architectural angles and tight shots, and though the weakest in the series, is still way better than your average commercial.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable, memorable campaign that actually promotes a new reason to buy a Lexus. To paraphrase from When Harry Met Sally, you’ll want to have what these people are hearing.