Judge Clark Douglas doesn't mess with Mr. In-Between.
A man who's kept the world singing for more than eight decades.
Part documentary, part concert film, and part shameless adulation, Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me is an immensely entertaining if only mildly substantial tribute to the singer/songwriter. When one thinks of the great pre-rock n' roll American songwriters, the likes of Stephen Foster, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Irving Berlin come to mind. This documentary makes the assertion that Mercer absolutely deserves to be ranked as one of the greats, and then proceeds to make its case via a combination of eloquent interview tributes and (even more effectively) a well-chosen compilation of archival footage featuring Mercer himself.
Though I had always regarded Mercer as a prolific and esteemed artist, not until watching this documentary did I realize just how many memorable songs sprung forth from Mercer's pen. During the 1930s, Mercer began to attain some measure of mainstream success due to his work for a series of (mostly unmemorable) Hollywood features. Collaborating with composers like Richard Whiting and Harry Warren, Mercer wrote such lyrics as "Jeepers Creepers," "Hooray for Hollywood," and "Too Marvelous for Words," all songs that would prove considerably more lasting than the films they appeared in. Mercer went to the next level during the 1940s when he began collaborating with the immensely talented Harold Arlen. Together, the Arlen/Mercer team produced "That Old Black Magic," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Blues in the Night," "On the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe," and many others. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Mercer worked with a plethora of superb composers throughout his career, from Hoagy Carmichael to Henry Mancini to David Raksin. There isn't a single period of Mercer's career where the great writer wasn't producing a steady stream of memorable hits.
Listening to the songs that appear throughout this 90-minute special, one really begins to appreciate Mercer's combination of verbal inventiveness and deceptively homespun charm. Many of his lyrics are as immensely clever as something written by Cole Porter or Gilbert and Sullivan, but the songs aren't in love with their own cleverness. The lyrical witticisms and delightful bits of vocabulary are slipped into the numbers in a surprisingly naturalistic manner, and the songs are all the better for it. From the interviews we see with him, Mercer seems to be a charming conversationalist, though we hear stories of his occasional bouts of mean-spiritedness. "I'm not saying he was an alcoholic," one person says, "But alcohol isn't always the best influence on people." Still, we hear far more about Mercer as an artist than we do about Mercer as a person. Again, this documentary is far more interested in paying tribute to a talented man than in providing a thorough biography of his life.
Some may complain about the clip-heavy nature of the documentary, but as someone who had a pretty minimal knowledge of Mercer's work, I greatly enjoyed getting to see the many performances of his songs featured in this film. Bing Crosby probably gets more screen time than any other singer, but you'll also see performances of Mercer songs by Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, and many others. An impressive group of friends and fans are onhand to provide new interviews: Leonard Maltin, Clint Eastwood, John Williams, Stephen Holden, Julie Andrews, Andre Previn, Alan Bergman, and Tony Bennett are among the participants. Adding even more value are new studio performances of Mercer songs by Jamie Cullum, Morgan Eastwood, Audra McDonald, Dr. John, and others, with John Williams himself playing the piano during some of their numbers…seriously, how cool is that?
As with many documentaries, the image quality varies based on the source material being used. The new stuff (primarily talking-head interviews) looks terrific, while everything else varies from pristine to horribly damaged. Likewise, the music sounds better or worse depending on its age. Many of the songs from the '30s and '40s suffer from popping and crackling, while other tunes come through with considerably more clarity.
The documentary comes with an entire disc of bonus features, which isn't as exciting as it sounds but which still has some items of merit. First up is an extended set of interviews; the first with John Williams and Clint Eastwood, the second with Eastwood and Jamie Cullum. Both are engaging (despite overlapping some with the documentary), though I couldn't help but notice that Williams and Cullum do the vast majority of the talking in their respective pieces. Clint claims to really love Mercer's music, but he doesn't seem to have much to say about it. In addition, there are extended studio performances of Mercer songs courtesy of Cullum, Williams, Morgan Eastwood, Audra McDonald, Maude Maggart, Alan Bergman, Michael Feinstein, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jay Leonart, Dr. John, Cleo Laine, and John Dankworth. This 10-song set is an entertaining blend of established hits ("Laura," "That Old Black Magic") and less well-known songs ("Emily," "Lazybones") that was fun to watch. You also get a montage of family photos w/narration by Nancy Gerard (Mercer's niece), in addition to a montage of original paintings by Mercer w/narration. Finally, there is a biographical text essay provided by Glenn T. Eskew.
Though lacking in substance at times, Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me is a very engaging watch that's sure to please fans and newcomers alike. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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