Passport Video // 2004 // 50 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 18th, 2004
The eternal essence of cool.
Dean Martin was such a multi-faceted cultural icon that many have forgotten just what he really represents, if anything. To some, he is the perfect straight man, playing a precise game of controlled chaos with "trained ape" partner Jerry Lewis. Others will recall a droll drunken degenerate, hand wrapped around an ever-full glass of booze, eyeing the "broads" with bad intent. Extrapolate out of that campy cliché and Martin becomes the randy Rat Packer, ready with a quip and a trip to the bar to add the right amount of life to the party presence to Old Blue Eyes's band of bad-boy brothers. Then there is the dramatic actor, an ample performer capable of holding his own with the likes of John Wayne and Geraldine Page. And lest we forget, there is the perfected and polished symbol of Italian pop culture hero worship. With a flawless Roman nose and a face like the classical forms found in frescos and freezes around the ruins of the ancient Mediterranean city, this tall, dark, and handsome charmer seemed so easy going and gregarious as to be readily taken for granted.
There is no more proof of such a position than when his musical legacy is recalled. Ask someone to name one of his many chart-toppers and the same four or five songs are listed: the pizza pie in the sky of "That's Amore!"; the recipe for a happy outlook known as "Memories are Made of This"; the signature sonnet "Everybody Loves Somebody," or the paisan pronouncements of "Volaré." But Martin was so much more than this, both as an entertainer and as a musician. Passport Video wants to aid in the appreciation of this legend with the DVD presentation, Dean Martin: Encore.
Representing a kinescope compilation of musical moments from Dean's mid-'50s TV shows with partner Jerry Lewis, plus a couple of clips from a Dean Martin / Frank Sinatra / Bing Crosby special, Dean Martin: Encore is a magical and maddening DVD package. Aside from a transfer that looks like lost footage from a failed first attempt at transmitting the television signal from the moon, to a Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack that washes all nuance and beauty out of the songs, this is still a fascinating portrait of Martin as peculiar pop star.
Since his death, Martin hasn't had much solo respect foisted upon his heritage. It seems like once the praisemobile has stopped by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Mel Torme's doorsteps, there is little left in the laudatory larder for poor old Dean. Yet the images and sonics in this package suggest he deserved at least equal, if not more of, the congratulatory vehicle's amulets of admiration. Martin had more resonance than San Francisco's favored son, acres of personality that surpass the Chairman's perfunctory aloofness, and a fancy way with words that puts the Velvet Fog to shame. He combines grace with grit, the savvy of his ethnic upbringing with the cool cat bravado that all the ladies love. Though it's his latter days -- those carefree flings with fame that centered around the beloved Rat Pack, his mid-'60s swing-a-ding TV series (featuring lots of bodacious babes and supposedly pickled performances), and a host of campy feature films -- that most people recall, Martin's main success was as part of a team. Sadly, the brief shots of his act with partner Lewis (Jerry joins his crooning cohort on the songs "You'll Never Get Away" and "Sometimes I'm Happy") fail to indicate the full range of joy and revelry their joint venture generated.
Indeed, most of Dean Martin: Encore fails to do the man and his muse justice. Most of the songs sung are unrecognizable knock-offs, less than stellar examples of mass-produced musical numbers generated to fill up nightclub, television or stage show airtime. Sure, "Mambo Italiano," "The Glory of Love," "Pennies from Heaven," and "Walking My Baby Back Home" are great old tunes, but after "That's Amore!" and a strange rendition of "La Vie En Rose," the rest of the offerings here are head-scratchers. So is the inclusion of the Martin / Sinatra / Crosby sing-along medley of creaky olden moldies. There is nothing novel or interesting about hearing these classic crooners joke through "Down on the Old Mill Stream" or "The Old Grey Mare" (where's "Little Brown Jug" and "The Old Oaken Bucket"?). Each in his own right was a musician of uncanny skill and subtle shading, but belting out aged chestnuts leaves these talented titans with very little leeway to interpret or interact (unless you call making sarcastic fun of each other witty repartee).
The aforementioned sequences with Lewis seem unstuck in entertainment time, included to pad out the anemic near-50-minute running time of this disc. The duo is in fine form during "Sometimes I'm Happy," both accompanied by one of those massive choral ensembles that highlights every phrase Dean sings with vocal gymnastics and backing. It's hilarious. And the account of Lewis's stay in the hospital (obviously meaning he missed some shows) is alluded to during "You'll Never Get Away." But these examples are far from Dino at his dizziest. Better examples of his craft and charm must exist. Apparently, Passport only had access to certain footage (can you say public domain?). This makes Dean Martin: Encore a limited, narrowly focused, and yet still enjoyable experience.
This is not a DVD for home theater enthusiasts, though -- not by a long shot. The sound and vision are, as said before, artifacts from a far-off, non-preservationist mindset. Who would have thought that 50-some years after they first aired, people would be interested in old television shows and the people who performed in them? So we are stuck with unattractive, occasionally almost unwatchable, faded, fuzzy, filled-with-broadcast / recording-defects demonstrations of how lucky we are to have all the digital technology that we do today. The images are bad. Okay, so what, right? Even if it's a black and white 1.33:1 full screen fiasco, it's the music that is most important, right? Absolutely, and it is moreover in this aspect that Dean Martin: Encore fails. There is nothing wrong with Dolby Digital Mono -- under the right circumstances and with lots of care taken to strip away any static or sonic debris, a regular monaural soundtrack can really soar on DVD. But we are once again dealing with nth generation reproduction, without any remastering or reconfiguration. So songs swagger all over the sonic map from overly loud to whisper quiet. Martin can be perfectly passable one moment, and so low in the mix as to be indecipherable in another. There is lots of white noise in the track -- crackles and pops that indicate age and handling mishaps. The transfer is terrible, all around.
Any chance we have to see some of the legends of entertainment work their special artistic magic should be welcomed and savored. As our society moves more and more toward the disposable and the instantly gratifying, there is a real fear of losing our lineage. But Dean Martin: Encore is a poor excuse for perpetuation. While Dino and his dashing debonair air make it sway and swagger, the disastrous digital issues almost scuttle the entire project. Dean Martin was a truly gifted performer. This DVD of selected favorites will offer only minor musical merriment. The rest of the time it is situated solidly in the past.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 50 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Dean Martin