***/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
directed by Andrew J. Kuehn
by Walter Chaw Starting off fascinating and ending up feeling slightly overlong, the expansive musical travelogue The Great American Songbook traces the roots of "American" popular music from the War of 1812 through to the early Christy minstrel shows, Bessie Smith, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, and beyond. If it's true that things go in cycles on a grand scheme, it's also true of an individual's life: Reviewing The Great American Songbook for me coincides with my first reading of Griel Marcus's brilliant Mystery Train; touches hands with my interview with Andrei Codrescu, who's working on a documentary about the Mississippi blues; and follows fast my exposure to the brilliant Sarah Vowell's brilliant piece on the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The piece found me, in other words, already on a journey into our heritage of American music, and if the picture is more travelogue than encyclopedia, its value is as timeline and supplement.
Hosted by musician Michael Feinstein, who's seated behind a piano and narrating with a nice, comforting cadence, the documentary features an amazing richness of film clips from the MGM, Warner/Vitaphone, and RKO archives that illustrate popular music's elastic evolution. The major weakness of The Great American Songbook, in fact, is that it neglects to annotate the titles of the films used in this way. While probably not a big deal for music enthusiasts, it's of considerable frustration for cinephiles. Whatever the case, the picture is more of an educational exercise than an artistic one, making its ultimate worth more quantitative than qualitative. In that sense, it's a well-organized work (at least until rock music is given a rather cursory treatment--better to call this "The Great American Adult Contemporary Songbook") presented with zeal--that passion alone enough to carry the piece through much of its extended running time.
Warner presents The Great American Songbook in a lovely video transfer that stands as a showcase for the archived print excerpts herein--almost all of which are sharp and lovingly restored. Widescreen pictures are preserved non-anamorphically but look fabbo. Even better is a Dolby 5.1 soundmix that runs the gamut a little according to the age and quality of the source materials but is generally clean of defects and charmingly separated between vocals to the front and instruments to the rear. Audio levels are consistent and satisfying.
Although a feature-length commentary by Feinstein promises to identify the films used, it fails almost completely to do so--only the first of many disappointments with this extra, which tends to run on into pointless reverie. A symbol will appear on-screen at the end of each commented-upon segment, prompting you to skip to the beginning of the next chapter and the next short block of commentary. If only all commentary tracks afforded the same courtesy. A ten-minute MGM short, A New Romance of Celluloid: We Must Have Music (1941), presents another musical overview documentary, including a few nifty B-rolls of Busby Berkeley. Brevity being the soul of wit, and all, this featurette is a nice addition.
175 minutes; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 5.1; CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Warner