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THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Everyone who's anyone in the genesis of American music!
Director: Andrew Kuehn
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, with narration by Michael Feinstein
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: black & white and color, full-frame
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: audio commentary, vintage musical short
Length: 174 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003

"It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die, the world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by..."

Film *** 1/2  

The Great American Songbook (2003) is exactly what it sounds like - a massive documentary about the formative years of American music.  During the course of this three hour production, narrator Michael Feinstein takes us on a journey that starts early in the nineteenth century and ends in the 1950's with the eventual rise of rock and roll.  The documentary introduces "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as the first true American hit song, to "After the Ball" as the first million-seller, to "Happy Days are Here Again" as the biggest hit of the immediate post-Prohibition era, and finally to Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," the symbol of a new era in American music.  Along the way, we see newsreels, film clips, archival footage, Broadway performances, home videos, photographs, and just about everything else.  The enormous parade of names and faces comprises an incredible array of songwriters, composers, stage performers, and movie stars.  To flesh out the documentary, this Turner production draws material from such studios as RKO, Warner Brothers and its subsidiary Vitaphone, 20th-Century Fox, Universal, and MGM.  In short, practically any studio that had significant production during the heyday of the American musical is represented here.

Michael Feinstein, seated behind a magnificent black Baldwin grand piano, is the on-camera host.  Not only is he a cheerful and knowledgeable narrator, but he occasionally sings or plays excerpts from the many famous tunes crafted during this era.  He has a tendency at times to over-sentimentalize his narration, but as a singer and pianist, he is quite good and has excellent phrasing.

The documentary traces the roots of American music back to the earliest influences from the music of slavery.  The African-inspired rhythms, such as in the New Orleans "conga dances" and the spirituals sung by slaves, led to the popularity of minstrel shows.  While the minstrel show is denounced today as being politically incorrect, it remained a popular form of entertainment for nearly a century and served the function of introducing many audiences to a new form of music.  From this music gradually arose some distinctly American musical styles - ragtime, jazz, and the blues.  Equally important was the innovative instrumentation, such as the invention of the banjo, a key component in the evolution of Dixieland jazz and bluegrass music.  Mixed with the European-flavored music arriving with classically trained immigrants, such as Italian arias and British comic operettas, this music gave birth to the American musical as a new form of artistic expression.  The George White's Scandals and the Zeigfeld Follies were among the first shows to successfully integrate the different styles of the new American musical genres together into popular theater productions.  However, the first true modern musical, one that established the genre as an art form that could be taken seriously and was capable of telling a dramatic story, was the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein classic Show Boat.

The Great American Songbook is a virtual goldmine of other fascinating trivia as well.  For instance, did you know that Arthur Freed, who later headed the most successful production unit ever in MGM history, originally penned the words for "Singin' in the Rain?"  Or that Ira Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay" was a final tribute to his brother's last completed melody?  Or that Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" had lingered in one of his dusty chests until he gave it to Kate Smith to immortalize?  Or that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was not adopted as the national anthem until 1933 and that its melody had been derived originally from a British tune?

At three hours, the documentary uses its length to show audiences many of the famous people who helped to shape American music.  Unfortunately, the sheer wealth of information available could easily fill up a documentary ten times as long as this one.  Ultimately, what is presented here is best considered as an introduction to the genre rather than a definitive, extensive history.  The feel of this documentary is at times reminiscent of MGM's That's Entertainment compilations, even using some of the same footage.  But while the purpose of those compilations was mostly to display a haphazard "best-of" MGM show, The Great American Songbook has been carefully organized and researched and incorporates material from a great deal more sources.

Want to know some of the famous lyricists and composers included?  How about - Harry Warren, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields, Richards Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, George Cohan, Fats Waller, Scott Joplin, Hoagie Carmichael, Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar, Gus Kahn, Adolf Green, Lerner & Lowe, or Harold Arlen?

Are you more interested in the stage and screen stars who immortalized these songs?  Then how about - Fanny Brice, Alice Faye, Astaire & Rogers, Dick Powell & Ruby Keeler, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, the Nicholas Brothers, the Andrew Sisters, Gene Kelly, Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy, Al Jolson, Ethel Waters, James Cagney, Marx Brothers, Doris Day, Mel Torme, Dinah Shore, Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gordon MacRae, Frank Sinatra, Louis Jordan, Leslie Caron, Ray Bolger, Howard Keel, Betty Hutton, or Eleanor Powell?

Even non-singers, like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, make an appearance!

You will see some truly classic renditions in The Great American Songbook.  Experience Paul Robeson's immortal singing of "Ol' Man River" from Show Boat.  From A Star is Born, marvel at Judy Garland's definitive "The Man That Got Away."  From the biopic Words and Music, listen to Lena Horne's smoky version of "Where or When."  From Abbott & Costello's Buck Privates no less, boogie along to the Andrew Sisters' wartime mega-hit "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B."  Other great clips include Danny Thomas' fantastically moving rendition of Gus Kahn's "It Had to be You" or the Nicholas Brothers' energetic "Chattanooga Choo Choo" dance.  However, the best dance clips (of which there are relatively few, as this documentary is mainly about the songs) belong to Astaire & Rogers, immortalized in excerpts of their dances to Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" or "Cheek to Cheek" and Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."  The narrator doesn't mention it, but for anyone who wants to know, those dance clips came from Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance, respectively.

I could go on and on, but a complete list would be quite exhaustive.  While I am certain that I have neglected to mention many big names, suffice it to say that anybody who's anybody in those formative days of American music on stage and on the silver screen is included in The Great American Songbook.

As the documentary draws to a close, some of the great latter-day Broadway musicals are also mentioned.  These include Annie Get Your Gun, Sound of Music, and My Fair Lady.  I must have missed hearing about Cole Porter's biggest hit, Kiss Me Kate, though.  Odd.  However, Lerner & Lowe's Gigi, is mentioned!  As the recipient of 9 Academy Awards in 1958, it proved to be the last truly great original Hollywood musical.  Soon thereafter, the horizon of American music would be changed forever.  It is suiting for the documentary's conclusion to include a clip of Elvis Presley's rendition of "Jailhouse Rock."  As the 1950's closed, traditional popular music gradually surrendered the center stage of pop culture to the new musical trend of rock and roll that would sweep the country into a new era of American music.

Video ** 1/2

Hmm, a tough category.  There is nothing overtly wrong with this fine transfer, despite the documentary's 3-hour length.  In fact, given its length, it is quite amazing that the video looks as good as it does, without any discernible compression artifacts!  However, due to the abundance of archival newsreels and film vault material that is used for this documentary, the footage quality will vary widely from a silent film scratchiness to a modern day sparkle.

Audio ** 1/2

Again, while the audio is quite good, the quality of the sound does vary quite widely in the archival material that is used.  Furthermore, as a documentary, the film's sound quality are not up to feature film standards.  That being said, it is still quite pleasant all in all, and the 5.1 audio mix, most prominently when Michael Feinstein sings or plays the piano, spreads the sound around nicely.

Features ** 1/2

Michael Feinstein does double duty for an audio commentary track to go along with his narration in the documentary.  While it seems odd for the host to comment on his own comments, it does allow him an opportunity to provide greater details about the numerous clips used in The Great American Songbook .  The actual documentary does not identify these films per se, so unless you already know this information, the audio commentary is an invaluable aid in placing a name to any particular film clip that catches your fancy.

The only other extra is the vintage short A New Romance of Celluloid: We Must Have Music.  It is basically a self-congratulatory promotional film by MGM about its musicals and its stars.  There is nothing of great significance here, although the short does provide a rare glimpse of Busby Berkeley, recently acquired from Warner Brothers, rehearsing the cast for a production number in Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland's Babes in Toyland.  There is also a huge parade of film clips showing all the big MGM stars of the day.  I may be a film buff, but I could only recognize perhaps a quarter of them.  See how many you can identify!

Summary:

Anyone interested in the early history of American music will definitely want to check out this Turner Entertainment documentary!  It is a solidly entertaining introduction to the roots of American musical culture and the many people and styles involved in shaping it.