Shelter Island // 2010 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 3rd, 2013
"Amazing is an understatement. He was brilliant."
Odds are you're not too familiar with the late producer Arif Mardin, but you've most assuredly heard a decent chunk of his work. As an Atlantic Records producer for over 30 years, Mardin had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of talented artists: The Bee Gees, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, Queen, Anita Baker, Chaka Khan, Willie Nelson, Barbara Streisand, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Hall & Oates, Carly Simon...the list goes on and on. It's difficult to find much of a common thread in the songs he produced, but that's a fact that Mardin was proud of. In his estimation, a producer shouldn't have a particular "sound" but rather demonstrate that they're willing to adapt to the needs of each artist they're working with.
Unfortunately, that particular notion (one that would surely be disputed by a host of successful producers) is more or less the meatiest idea The Greatest Ears in Town has to offer. Elsewhere, it's a genial and rather toothless look at a man who's generally regarded as a nice fellow. As so many documentaries have taught us over the years, being a great person doesn't necessarily make one a great documentary subject. For most of its 102 minutes, the film contents itself with clips of assorted celebrities talking about what a good guy Mardin was and footage of Mardin being his good-natured self in the studio.
Mardin's way of working is a rather non-confrontational one. If he likes a take, he'll tell the singer that it was brilliant, lovely and wonderful. If he's not crazy about a take, he'll tell the singer that it was brilliant, lovely and wonderful...and then ask them to try doing it one more time. Even so, the guy clearly knows his way around producing a hit single (whether it's a perfect pop confection like The Bee Gees' "Nights on Broadway" or a drippy chart-topper like Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings"). The only moment of prickliness comes when Mardin collaborates with Dr. John. Mardin does his usual "that was terrific!" routine after a rough take, but the good Dr. isn't having any of it. Surely Mardin encountered more of the sort of push-and-pull that we witness in that particular scene, but there's precious little to be found in the film.
Still, despite the fact that it's a fluff piece, the documentary is hardly an unbearable viewing experience. It helps that most viewers aren't terribly familiar with Mardin's work, so at least the tidbits being thrown out will seem relatively fresh (imagine how tedious this approach might be if the documentary were about someone like Paul McCartney). It's kinda fun seeing a parade of celebrities drop in and pay their respects, and thankfully the filmmakers have full access to host of clips from the hit tunes Mardin produced over the years. Honestly, the most compelling interview subject is probably Mardin's wife of fifty years, who loves him but regards him a little less affectionately than most of the musicians featured. She speaks of her frustration with his unwillingness to write his own material (he's clearly quite capable) and with the challenges of being married to a man who constantly finds himself working overtime to meet deadlines. There's a stronger documentary to be made about their relationship, but the film we get is mostly a good-natured highlight reel.
The Greatest Ears in Town has received a solid DVD transfer. It's a mix of talking head interviews, footage of studio sessions and archival clips, so naturally the material is hit-and-miss, but it generally looks as good as it's supposed to. The Dolby 5.1 surround track is simple and strong, delivering the assorted pop tunes and interview clips with equal clarity. Supplements include a making-of featurette, an assortment of bonus interviews and an alternate take of Mardin's song "No Way Out."
The Greatest Ears in Town is hardly essential viewing, but it's a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours. Like many of Mardin's pop songs, it's lightweight, surface-level fun.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shelter Island
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Song