Great Performances: Season 31, Episode 11

The Great American Songbook (11 Mar. 2003)

TV Episode  |   |  Biography, Drama, Music
7.4
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Cast

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Robert Alda ...
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Themselves (archive footage)
Harold Arlen ...
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Anne Brown ...
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Ben Carter ...
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11 March 2003 (USA)  »

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Did You Know?

Trivia

Vernon Duke, the Russian-born songwriter mentioned in the film, studied music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory under his original name, Vladimir Dukelsky. One of his classmates was Sergei Prokofieff, who became a major classical composer: the two were lifelong friends and regularly wrote letters to each other until Prokofieff's death in 1953. (The letters were an important source for Harlow Robinson's biography of Prokofieff.) See more »

Goofs

The narration describes Al Jolson as one of America's leading vaudevillians. Jolson never played vaudeville; he went directly from performing in minstrel shows to appearing in Broadway musicals. See more »

Connections

Features Show Boat (1936) See more »

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User Reviews

 
Should be 'The Great American Showtune'
10 April 2014 | by (Ireland) – See all my reviews

The insufferable Michael Feinstein has loaded this historical survey with clips from movies and above all clips from movie musicals. His smarmy, anodyne presentation avoids anything really controversial, stews in stereotypical sentiments about the personal lives of the songwriters, and bows often in the direction of political correctness. A few of the clips are of genuine historical interest (25 minutes worth?), and one, of Fats Waller performing (about one-fourth of the way through) is truly astonishing. Most, though, serve Feinstein's own taste in ways that betray the objective stature of his purported subject matter. I think him now as a tinier version of a Harold Bloom, or a Joseph Campbell, or a Kenneth Branagh: someone riding on the coattails of a great subject to stoke his career and his sense of self.

What is most deeply offensive about this project, finally, is the presumption of its title 'The Great American Songbook'. That name belongs to a tradition of songwriters and singers that rivals, in its own way—albeit briefly—the tradition of lieder and chanson in Continental Europe. Instead Feinstein brings us 'The Great American Showtune', larding on 6 or 7 helpings of Judy Garland (mostly in decline). He also uses Ethel Merman—twice, along with many second and third rate voices (celebrities in their own time) who have little technical or interpretive capability. Lots of numbers were evidently chosen for their extravagant cinematic choreography.

The important and enduring story of 'The Great American Songbook' is not about musicals, movies, or even popular culture. Instead, it is about the music—how great singers made the songs their own, often in the context of American Jazz. Where in Feinstein's execrable production is Annette Hanshaw, Connee Boswell, Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, Maxine Sullivan, Ella Fitzgerald, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, and Nat King Cole? How about Art Tatum? The list could be considerably longer, and everyone on it would surpass all but a handful of the performers Feinstein showcased. The aggregate of Feinstein's largely mediocre selections, and his failure to tell the real story, in no way deserves to be titled 'The Great American Songbook'. Shame on him.


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