No mention at all of Ella, or Billie, or Sarah, or Dinah, or Dean, or Bobby, or even Anita O’Day! And only a passing reference to Louis. What? Whose American songbook is this? Check the title, my friend, Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook (DVD) is just that, Michael’s (MF), and he will do most of the singing and playing, thank you.
The three episodes on this DVD have appeared on PBS and make up the first half of the presentation. My copy also includes a two-hour bonus disk containing the full archival performances from the 1940s and 1950s (we see snippets of them in the episodes) for about 80 minutes and then MF’s own stage performances for the rest.
The star of this DVD on stage and off, MF is absolutely obsessed with this music—what are called standards. These are songs written between about 1920 and 1960 (give or take) by the likes of Irving Berlin (perhaps the most prominent thread throughout all three episodes), George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, Johnny Mercer…you get the idea. Most of the songs first appeared in Broadway shows or Hollywood movies, but they were made famous, and made into standards, by the singers and bands that performed, recorded, and interpreted them.
Fred Astaire, one of the foremost of these interpreters, receives scant notice on the DVD but is featured on the Web site: www.michaelfeinsteinsamericansongbook.org.
In Episode 1, “Putting on the Tail Fins,” we learn that MF started collecting everything about standards at the age of five, the same age he took naturally to the piano. Great piano players often start this way, and there is no doubt that MF is an amazing piano player. His mastery makes the DVD worth watching. (More about his singing later.)
Throughout the episodes we see MF visiting other collectors (or flea markets) searching for sheet music, arrangements, orchestrations, transcriptions, old vinyl records, old aluminum records of radio shows (yes, aluminum), undiscovered reel-to-reel tapes, and video tapes. He takes/buys/borrows what he can and then repairs to his underground lair of a studio to transfer and thus save hours and hours and hours of the music of the American songbook.
MF gives more than 150 concerts a year throughout the U.S., more, he says, to preserve and promote the music than because he likes being on stage, where he is actually most at home. We see MF now in his Manhattan townhouse, now in the car, now getting into the private jet (we don’t know if he owns or rents it), back in the car, then on stage for rehearsal in your town, on stage for the show, back in the car, on the plane, now at his small mansion in L.A., and back into his studio to preserve more . . . music.
He only comes out for meals, which must be why we meet his partner, Terrence Flannery, who serves as MF’s all-around manager, concierge, planner, decorator, host, and mediator between MF and his parents. MF looks least at home at the dinner table with his parents, who played the standards all the time at his childhood home in Columbus, Ohio.
[amazonify]B00455XFOY[/amazonify]“I love to entertain,” says Terrence, “Michael doesn’t care about clothes, or furniture, or about running a home. . . . He lets me make all the decisions, which is great.” One wonders why MF even has a partner at all, because by all accounts all he cares about is the … MUSIC.
MF does feature Rosemary Clooney, from whom he inherited his piano player. I can understand that they were great friends and that they did 200 shows together, but I can’t agree when MF says that she was the “greatest female singer of the twentieth century.” (See the first line of this review.) We do love Rosie, though, and still remember her commercial: “Extra value is what you get, when you buy Coronet.”
MF is at his best unaccompanied at the piano, which is how he started and always felt most comfortable. He struggled at first, he says, at trying to play with other people and sing with other players while not at the piano.
His voice is quite serviceable, let us say. But something seems lacking. I don’t know, just not very compelling. Many of his on-stage performances lack zip. Again, put him at the piano alone or with only a couple other pieces, and he is at his best. No need for the orchestra because MF’s piano playing does it all, as I wish we had seen on the second part of the bonus disk.
The main point, however, is that MF has been working for 40 years or more to preserve and promote this music. For that he gets all accolades due him.
I don’t quite see the purpose of Episode 2, “Best in the Band,” where MF takes pains to slam the jingoism, propaganda, and racism of the WWII-era music scene, all the while also trying to present a patriotic remembrance of the times. I found myself thinking what all this had to do with the American songbook. Plus, we now know that war sucks. MF’s own performance of his own patriotic composition is lackluster at best at the Lincoln Memorial for Abe’s 200th.
Episode 3, “A New Step Every Day,” hangs together better. We start in Harlem at the Cotton Club (for white patrons only) along with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. MF’s discovery of George Gershwin, who also spent considerable time in Harlem, was a “milestone of my life.” At age 20, MF went to L.A. and met Ira Gershwin and ended up working for him for six years as family archivist, assistant, and house (Ira’s) piano player.
Certainly, there are plenty of great songs here and many of the great singers—Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, even Stevie Wonder—but I can’t say I was riveted to the screen.
The bonus disk was a disappointment. Many of the archival pieces are lackluster, corny, or downright dumb. But it does contain the highlight of the whole five hours, leading me to issue this imperative: I instruct the reader not to die before SEEING and hearing Betty Hutton sing “Murder He Says.” According to Bob Hope, she’s “a vitamin pill with legs.”
Did I mention there was no Ella?
F. Scott, now a copy editor by trade, is a once-and-future Latin teacher. He pursues his passions for brain plasticity, jazz piano, and golf in southeast Massachusetts. He lives alone with Cicero, Shakespeare, Mozart, and Ella Fitzgerald.
This DVD set was provided free of any obligation by Goodman Media International, Inc. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.