Judge Bill Gibron isn't the son of a preacher man.
The original British Pop diva in a delightful, if derivative DVD outing.
It had been a hard road for Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien. At one time, she was the talk of the town, a certified superstar girl singer riding the wave of the Beatles coattails, and the subsequent British Invasion, all the way to international acclaim. But once the Fab Four faded and disco arrived, she was viewed as an artifact, relegated to a certain time and place. By the time breast cancer ended her life in 1999, she was an all but forgotten icon from the past. While individuals still praised her for what she had accomplished, there were no nods to her recent, post heyday achievements. Even her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ten days after her death seemed like an afterthought, an honor that was a long time in coming, but as usual, a little late in the game to be appreciated. Still, there was no denying the power she possessed. For Mary O'Brien, later to be known as Dusty Springfield, was one of the great female singers of all time.
Indeed, Dusty Springfield may be one of the few outstanding performers to be partially hampered by her actual image. Don't be mistaken, the woman was a marvel to behold, a tall, graceful beauty with a mountain of blond hair framing a smoldering, sultry set of eyes. Decked out in psychedelic dusters or classic Carnaby Street fashions, she was statuesque and enigmatic, a combination of cool and casual that balanced out well with the mournful classics she crooned. But it was that amazing singing voice, that smoky, heart-wrenching tool that brought about the dilemma. How could a gal from Hampstead, London sound so soulful, so full of emotion and torment? Even through the pop tone tenets of the songs she sang, Springfield cut a distinct and devastating swath through the mainstream music business. She defied categorization, dabbled in every genre and type, and yet still couldn't shake the blue-eyed ideal of her Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Where someone like Janis Joplin defied the odds and redefined the notion of the white female blues singer, Springfield is still seen as an anomaly, a cool Caucasian chick flawlessly channeling music that should be beyond her ethnic reach.
Of course, none of that discussion or discourse is part of a new DVD on the singer from White Star Video. Part PBS pledge drive drivel, part exceptional performance overview, Dusty Springfield: Reflections works best when its tacked-on talking heads shut up and let the sizzling chanteuse sing. Though there is nothing wrong with hearing Petula "Downtown" Clark or B.J. "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" Thomas pontificate and reminisce about their friend and fellow vocalist, neither says anything particularly insightful about Springfield as an individual or as an entity outside her talent. To them, and frankly to Reflections, she is just a voice. And what a remarkable instrument it is. Over the course of 17 songs—only a couple of which are hampered by technical or procedural issues—we hear the amazing sense of soul and spirit that became Springfield's trademark. For those interested in the titles, we experience the following flawless tracks:
"Wishin' and Hopin'"
Anyone interested in hearing Springfield's comeback work from the late '80s and early '90s (thanks in part to the Pet Shop Boys) will need to look elsewhere. Reflections is just a collection of film clips, television appearances, and old kinescope segments, each one highlighting a Springfield performance. And while almost all are couched in a gear-swinging '60s sense of fashion and fun (some of the psychedelic and surreal sets Springfield appears on are dynamite), they are also hampered by the audio and video limitations of the day. Sometimes we see Springfield in sensational, moody monochrome. Other times, the black and white is muddy and baffling, looking 12th generation and hideous. On the occasions where there is color, we get the non-correct pigments present in the pre-digital age, leaving our lovely lady looking rather peaked in her videotape vault presentation.
The sound situation isn't much better. Springfield does sing live on some of Reflections songs, but mostly, this is lip sync city, a trip into variety show variables that rendered even the most titanic talent showy and artificial. Anyone whose ever seen the Springfield bio that occasionally airs on the Ovation cable channel (derived from the British series The South Bank Show) knows just what a smart and special live performer the singer was. But Reflections gives us too few chances to see her shine. Thankfully, even in a foolish or faked mode, there is no denying the command of songs like "I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten," "I Wanna Be a Free Girl," or "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." The difference in the dynamic is present, however, when viewed alongside the concert take on "I Only Want to Be With You." Other chances to hear her sing live come during three of her seminal hits—the Pulp Fiction fave "Son of a Preacher Man," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," and Casino Royale's "The Look of Love."
Throughout it all, Springfield is a little awkward onstage, given to goofy hand and arm gestures that seem out of place for such a polished, professional performer. She occasionally appears hindered by the surroundings, lost in a web of weird lighting and laughable visual effects. As with most television created 40 years ago, the medium is being influenced and infiltrated by radical ideas, many of which were discarded once they were tried. Much of Reflections feels like a time capsule example of crappy small screen experiments. Oddly enough, the visual distractions make Springfield's voice stand out even further. Clark and Thomas, as more or less our "hosts," are fairly useless. They do the typical outsider glad-handing, afraid to say anything critical or concrete about the subject. And Springfield even speaks for herself here, in occasional interview footage that shows her to be a shy, reserved lady of regard. She doesn't believe all the hype and hysteria surrounding her popularity (almost all the Q&As are from the late '60s/early '70s) and seems lost in a fog of wistful indifference. Still, it's the music that keeps us connected, and what makes Dusty Springfield: Reflections, a tolerable, made for telethon experience.
White Star's tech specs on this disc are pretty decent, considering the recent releases by companies like Passport and Kultur. Though there are a few instance of kinescope catastrophe in this standard 1.33:1 full screen transfer, the rest of the material is about as good as one could expect from decades old imagery. The Dolby Digital Stereo can't improve on flat mono mixes, but at least the compositions are presented without substantial hiss or distortion. Sadly, White Star's only extra is a menu option to play each song separately. There is no discography or biography information on Springfield, which would seem mandatory for a music-oriented title. Still, this is a better looking presentation, overall, than some of the slapped onto DVD slop that passes across a critic's desk.
And yet, even in an almost exclusive performance mode, Dusty Springfield: Reflections, doesn't do its subject justice. There was much more to the career, and the artistry, of this amazing singer than a flimsy 60 minutes can provide. Though it's amazing to listen to, and occasionally lovely to look at, Reflections is just that, a minor meditation on an incredibly influential and important performer. Fans will find enough here to like and or love, but for those new to Springfield, it may be a case of too little, far too late. She was so much more than just her songs. But that's all this DVD wants to give us.
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