"May all your Christmases be white…"
When I was a young boy growing up in North Miami Beach, my family would curl up by the fire on a snowy evening, and plaintively sing Christmas carols while watching figure skating.
Well, except that it never actually snowed (except once in the mid-1970s, but that was just flurries). And we were Jewish, so the only fire was a menorah, which is hard to curl up around. And it was Chanukah anyway, which isn't a big holiday for caroling (but nice if you like potato pancakes). And I only ever tried ice skating once, and it was rather unpleasant. But everything else is absolutely true. I swear it.
And now you can see why I am the perfect impartial judge for Anne Murray's Classic Christmas. Because this disc speaks to me. It speaks to me deep in my soul.
Anne Murray's Classic Christmas is a 1995 television special filmed at Toronto's Old Mill. After a brief rendition of "Winter Wonderland" outdoors, the action cuts to a "family Christmas party" set. In front of a room full of "party guests" (whom Anne never seems to look at, focusing her attention on the camera even during her duets), Anne and friends perform a selection of Christmas songs, both traditional and contemporary. The performances are lip-synched to fully orchestrated studio tracks.
Special guests for the show (which is apparently one of many Anne has done over the years for the Canadian Broadcasting Company) include singing star Roch Voisine, who performs an anti-war folk song with (you guessed it) a Christmas theme, then joins Anne for four (!) duets standing before the "living room" fireplace. Pop band Barenaked Ladies bounce through a nice rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," which the teens rounded up for the "concert audience" seem to enjoy (although they appear a bit puzzled at times. Anne, looking a bit uncomfortable, joins the band for two duets, and the effect is much like the classic but bizarre holiday collaboration a number of years ago between Bing Crosby and David Bowie on "The Little Drummer Boy." Figure skater Elvis Stojko, in a pair of segments taped elsewhere, skates gracefully to a tape of Anne, and later to a rather bluesy number by Elvis Presley. Scattered among these segments are scenes in which Anne sings to a group of children, performs with a gospel choir outdoors, and finally with her enthusiastic husband and children (who have fine voices, but look a bit embarrassed to be singing publicly with mom). The final number is a very brief a capella spiritual with her entire family which shows delightful chemistry that Anne seems to be missing with the show's other guests.
Although this was a television special shot on video, the image is quite sharp and clean, with no flaws at all. Since this is video tape, you can't expect deep flesh tones or the other nice features of film, but it looks nice nonetheless. The audio (which appears to be Dolby 2.0, although the packaging never says) sounds clear. The songs are studio recordings (since everyone is lip-synching), so they are professionally produced. The orchestrations are lush and pleasant, if a little uninspired and reverential on most songs, while the notable exceptions of the Barenaked Ladies performance and the Elvis Presley number.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Surprise! You expected to get to this point of the review and read the usual bitter complaining about WinStar. But WinStar actually did a fine job with this disc. No, you aren't dreaming. They actually provide extras! A biography and extensive discography of Anne Murray. Animated menus featuring Anne singing "White Christmas" (with a clip from the special) and a clip-filled scene selection menu (chapters match up with the original commercial breaks). And an Amaray case. Hooray for WinStar!
And now the bad news. Anne Murray herself. While fans of her music will enjoy hearing her sing these songs, I cannot say much for her performance as host here. She seems rather stiff and formal, standing perfectly still during most of her numbers and never seeming to warm up with her guests (except very briefly with her children at the end). Of course, this is a television variety special, probably done on a low budget, but most of the performances consist of Anne hitting her mark and standing in place while the cameras fade back and forth from close-ups to medium shots. Her own acting here does not help: she clearly lacks chemistry with the more boisterous Barenaked Ladies and the gospel choir that joins her for a number called "No Room at the Inn." Her prescripted jokes seem forced, and she tends to look straight into the camera rather than play off her audience in the room, who function as little more than set decoration. Let's face it: Anne Murray is really very whitebread here, showing a formal command of the music, but a lack of rhythm or energy. Everyone else performing in this show seems much more jazzed. Loosen up, Anne! It's Christmas!
For fans of Anne Murray (you know, like your parents, you cheap wretch), this might make a nice Christmas gift. And it might play nicely in the background at your holiday party this year. It isn't overpowering or particularly inspired, but it is a pleasant diversion for an hour. Anne herself turns in a cursory performance, but the guest stars are fun to watch. WinStar sells the disc on its own or in a two-pack with An Intimate Evening with Anne Murray, which I have not seen but presume is another of her many CBC specials.
In the spirit of the holiday season, everyone involved with this production is hereby acquitted, including WinStar. The court offers Anne herself a Christmas present: a bit of hipness.
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