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Warner Home Video presents
The Great American Songbook (2003)

"This wonderful thing we call the American popular song is really a hybrid of music from all around the world: a British folk tune, a Viennese waltz, an African rhythm, twelve-bar blues, the influence of traditional Irish and Jewish music and the syncopated rhythms of ragtime....It could only have happened here, in America."
- Michael Feinstein

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: May 11, 2003

Stars: Michael Feinstein
Other Stars: Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Bessie Smith, Mickey Rooney, Hoagy Carmichael, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Paul Robeson, Al Jolson, Alice Faye, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Anne Brown, Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, James Melton, Dorothy Dandridge, Groucho Marx, Cab Calloway, Andrews Sisters, Doris Day, Ben Carter, Ray Bolger, Red Skelton, Danny Thomas, Gordon MacRae, Grace Kelly, Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Hermione Gingold, Betty Hutton, Elvis Presley
Director: Andrew J. Kuehn

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:54m:31s
Release Date: April 22, 2003
UPC: 085393738525
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AA-B+ C

DVD Review

The popular music of America is a rich and varied tapestry. This new documentary, hosted by Michael Feinstein, provides a history of that art form up through the 1960s. Cleverly, the enormous libraries of Warner Bros, RKO, MGM and Vitaphone are mined for classic film clips illustrating the musicians and composers as well as the music itself. The result is both visually and aurally intriguing, with a ton of great material seldom seen.

Beginning with the practically prehistoric first American popular song of Yankee Doodle, its evolution is traced briefly through Stephen Foster, minstrel shows, vaudeville and ragtime, along with the development of New Orleans jazz and blues. Things really start rolling with the introduction of sound films in 1927, with much of the attention devoted to the great musicals of the 1930s through the 1950s. Tin Pan Alley, with the Gershwins, Carmichael and Porter get close attention as well. The story runs into the 1960s, but rock and roll is essentially disregarded beyond a brief clip of Elvis Presley. Since that material is less well represented on film, that's understandable, but it's also a bit difficult at this close range to tell what will truly be remembered from the rock era. The limitation thus works to avoid making such difficult and possibly dubious assessments. In any event, this allows the piece to play more like That's Entertainment, except focusing on the music instead of the dancing, which is not itself a bad thing.

The clips are well selected and give an excellent cross-section of the music scene of the 20th century. There's quite a lot of Judy Garland, but her impact in the musical world of the 1930s through 1950s can hardly be overstated. As a bonus, a number of extreme rarities from films tied up in rights hell for decades (notably Ray Bolger in Charley's Aunt) are included, giving the viewer a rare glimpse at long-suppressed material. The less-well known characters also get attention, including such now-forgotten luminaries as Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml. As a whole, the program is balanced quite well.

If there's a weakness, it's host Michael Feinstein. Although clearly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the music, too often the focus is on Feinstein playing the tunes on the piano, or even worse, singing them off-key. I suppose that's one of the benefits to Feinstein as executive producer, but someone really should have suggested that he restrain himself a bit; the program is supposed to be about the music, not Michael Feinstein. In addition, for the most part, the films are not identified. An optional subtitle track would have been a useful addition here to provide information about what we're seeing. But as a whole, this is certainly a worthwhile endeavor and contains a ton of great music.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The clips, surprisingly enough, are almost all in immaculate condition, with rich black levels and excellent detail, regardless of their ages. The color segments are a little less attractive than the black and white, with a tendency to be a little smeary, but overall the presentation of the clips is superb. Let's hope that Warner gets around to issuing all of these musicals on DVD in such beautiful shape.

The few widescreen films excerpted are presented in their original aspect ratios (though nonanamorphic). Nonetheless, the nonanamorphic excerpt from Oklahoma! looks miles ahead of the miserable DVD issued by Fox.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The sole audio track is a DD 5.1 that provides a nicely subtle surround presence. The rear surrounds are generally reserved for the instrumental accompaniments, with the vocals front and center (though choral backups often venture into the mains and surrounds as well, giving an expansive feel to the track). Not surprisingly, the audio is of widely varying quality, ranging from tinny to superb. Most of it seems to have been cleaned up nicely, and hiss and noise, while present on some clips, is never overwhelming. This vintage material probably can't sound much better than what's presented here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 38 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:33m:35s

Extras Review: A couple of extras of marginal utility are included. One is a commentary by Feinstein, which once again suggests that, to him, this program is all about him. He relates meeting many of the great composers and writers, but has very little of interest to say about them. I could have been spared tales of how he learned to play piano by ear, too. Although he mentions at the beginning that he'll identify the films that are shown onscreen, he only rarely does so. The commentary thankfully isn't full length; after he speaks his piece a clef symbol appears on screen to move you on to the next chapter, where the commentary resumes.

More interesting is a brief MGM short from 1941, We Must Have Music (10m:52s) that essentially does the same brief recounting of the movie musical, though obviously not with the same scope, and limited to clips from MGM projects. However, it's certainly of interest, since it incorporates quite a few clips in its short running time, including a segment from the first movie musical, Broadway Melody of 1928. There's also behind-the-scenes footage of music scoring sessions and of Busby Berkeley directing, making this featurette an essential historical document.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A hefty three-hour documentary on the American popular song, with focus on the movie musical, given very nice transfers. The host could get out of the way more often, but the virtues of the program far outweigh the ego displays.


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