JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Great American Songbook (Featured performer: Michael Feinstein) - January 18, 2003
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The Great American Songbook

4 4
73 min.

Reviewed at the 2003 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Song and dance lights up fest finale

Any apprehension I had about closing the Palm Springs International Film Festival with a morph of That’s Entertainment vanished when a dozen Fred Astaires filled the screen and reminded us just how good dancing used to be. For seventy-three minutes (culled for this event from the over three hours/147 songs of this stunning “songumentary“) Michael Feinstein’s The Great American Songbook provided ample evidence of what American films do best: musicals!

The evening got off to a hilarious start with emcee Bruce Vilanch’s over-the-top humour: “White men come to Palm Springs to get brown; Red men come to get rich!” And when Carol Channing took the stage to introduce her fellow stars, which were sprinkled throughout the VIP section, she delivered her patter and asides with skill and timing that could only be envied by other personalities half her age. Dolly has not left the building!

Not surprisingly, the weakest parts of the documentary occur when Feinstein and his always noticeable Baldwin—framed by a covey of instruments that look as if they’ve never uttered a phrase—brought us an illustrative selection that wasn’'t available on film. The voice is fine and the stylings unobtrusive, but the camera seems to have just three shots (including the slow pan peek-a-boo through the piano lid’s stick) which only demonstrates how superior the footage of decades past is to the present day.

It was bitter-sweet reminder to see blacks as haulers and servers (Groucho Marx singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”) or nearly repulsive to view Al Jolson in blackface, but this was somewhat tempered by a clip of the fabulous Nicholas Brothers (with Faynard looking on from the audience) effortlessly executing leaps and splits that are in a class all to themselves.

The generous helpings of Judy Garland, particularly in the sequences with Ray Bolger (The Wizard of Oz) and James Mason in A Star Is Born are worth the entire price of admission.

The detailing of George Gershwin’s life and sudden death at 38, like Mozart (35) and Schubert (31) made me wonder what they all could have produced if they’d made it to 50!

The Stage Door Canteen segment (also playing live at the Palm Springs Follies, cross-reference below) with the incomparable Kate Smith stirring the hearts and nationalism of her listeners (including a telling cut-away to Ronald Reagan) as the U.S. is drawn into WW II, jogged my memory to a very uncomfortable moment in The Pianist (cross-reference below) when the battered Poles wondered why their affluent American cousins did not use their considerable influence to force the government into action much sooner. Ah yes, the glories of war!

When Elvis Presley finally slithered onto the screen for “Jailhouse Rock,” I found it instructive that, compared to the roar for Howard Keel in Annie Get Your Gun, the applause was merely polite. To many in the audience (including a resplendent looking Keel) rock and roll is still to be endured, not worshipped.

Following the screening, Feinstein kept the show going with a mini-set of songs from the remaining parts of the production (airing on PBS in March and released on DVD in April). In Irving Berlin’s “ Love a Piano,” he winked hard as the original word “Steinway” was (yours in sponsorship!) replaced with “Baldwin.” Ah, the power of commerce. But the question remains, if, say, Canada’s Asper family had ponied up with the film’s production money, would Feinstein wink again and present The Really Good (we’re such a modest people) Canadian Songbook, Eh? JWR

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Featured performer - Michael Feinstein
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Palm Springs International Film Festival
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