Friday, October 22, 2010

TV: Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Leaves Too Many Questions Unanswered

TV Review: Michael Feinstein's Great American Songbook
, aired the last three nights on PBS

Only on PBS could he get away with it. Yes, he is passionate and yes, he has some wonderful discoveries to share, among them a wry set of lyrics, never used, that Irving Berlin wrote for his great anthem “There's No Business Like Show Business." And sharp observations up his sleeve, one so obvious you might wonder, why did I not see that until now: This would be Al Jolson rolling his hips while he sang, just like a young troubadour named Elvis Presley would do thirty years later on national television.

And there are the songs, some of which he sings so tenderly and with such conviction, songs composed by a bygone era of great Broadway tunesmiths, starring his all-time favorite, George Gershwin. In their day, those Tin Pan Alley composers wrote the hit songs that America sang.

Unfortunately, cabaret singer Michael Feinstein is woefully (or conveniently) ill disposed to give “the great American songbook” (GAS, my term here for a great American song) a form and a history, so that we are left to ask and try to answer our own questions.

Why did Michael sing a patriotic composition of his own on the Washington mall? That a GAS? I hardly think so. Why a lame Elvis Presley throwaway number composed by an old time favorite of Feintein's? That a GAS? If so, why not a much better ditty from, say, the Beetles? Or, okay, an American team?

I would love to have been told who composed the first GAS, and who the last. Did dirty rock and roll kill it? A Seals and Crofts tune “Summer breeze” from a more recent era surely deserves membership as a certified GAS, no? And so many others.

And what exactly, by the way, defines a "great American song"?

Feinstein’s rambling three-part celebration which aired last week on PBS looked nagglingly more like a promo for the host than a valid documentary. The man's enthusiasm is infectious. I was both entertained and left perplexed by the format’s schizoid focus, however: Feinstein’s commentary about various songwriters and eras, which overlapped without any clear chronology; his visits to avid collectors; glimpses into his personal life, hardly personal here at all given that his partner Terrence Flannery (the two exchanged vows in 2008) comes off strangely as something of a stick figure in Feinstein's seemingly self-obsessed world.

And, of course, there are clips of Michael's vocalizing around a piano or in front of an orchestra, the latter platform revealing him to be, alas, a man of surprisingly uneven vocal talents. He is at his most affecting simply sitting at a Baldwin keyboard and crooning a lovely Gershwin ballad. "Our Love is Here to Stay" for starters. On his feet with a mike in stand up, his belting efforts strain a little.

Has the "songbook" been closed forever, or is it still open? Had Feinstein been able to embrace so many wonderful manifestations of it today, surely he would rejoice in how some of the greatest GAS are being rediscovered by, of all heathens, some gifted rockers, among them Rod Stewart who now has CD number 5 out. Stewart's renditions are nothing less than inspired. I just might buy one. And you, Michael?

The story of America's love affair, possibly past tense, with artfully created pop music (as opposed to folk, and, later, rock) has yet to be told in either a chronology or a format that can give us a handle. This was not that show. Somebody needs to grab Michael Feinstein by his neck and sign him to a contract to host such a documentary — not about himself but about, really, the Great American Song Book. And what a GAS that would be.

[photo, above, of Feinstein in the late 1970s in Los Angeles, with lyricist Ira Gershwin]


David Carlyon said...

Dear Showbiz, I really should write the times I read and enjoy what you write. That way I won't feel bad, as I do now, that my second comment here is a disagreement. However, Elvis Presley did NOT move like Al Jolson. If you taped that segment, look again. Yes, Jolson waves a bit around the midsection, as was the fashion then, but without Feinstein's statement, would you ever have thought "Aha, Elvis"? May I suggest that the best similarity is between Jolson's hip wave and the conventional, cleaned-up version of Elvis that is now usually described as "moving his hps"? But the jolt of his movement was not the hips, except tangentially, but that it involved the pelvis. That then clearly meant sex, and was a movement that few white audiences had seen, except watching strippers. Maybe Jolson's hip wave conveyed the same sense of sex at the time. I'll take Feinstein's word for it. But Elvis was shocking, not for simply shaking his hips but for rocking his pelvis, and attached bits.

Showbiz David said...

David, nice to hear from somebody on this. I was trying to give Feinstein due credit, I thought, for something interesting on a show I found too much a formless, even, dare I say, brainless ramble that struck me more as a self promotion, for Feinstein himself. (And what a ramble that sentence was.) The way he explained it, I thought I did see a distinct connection between Jolson and Elvis. However, Feinstein's claim of Rudy Vallee being a sex symbol I found laughable. I recall seeing Presley roll his hips for Sullivan that historic hysteric night.

The problem here I think is Feinstein himself. He does not even as far as I know answer the most fundamental question: in his opinion, what qualifies a song for the so called "great American songbook."

As for your being critical, that's ok. I myself tend to send letters or post comments when I disagree rather than agree.

roll on, young man...

Showbiz David said...

ps. when i said "connection," i meant very very subtle, but clearly there.