book review—Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire And Jazz

by Todd Decker (University of California Press)

So much has been written about the incomparable Fred Astaire, one might properly wonder what is left to say. In this scholarly book, music professor Decker answers that question with cogent analyses of Astaire’s work and, just as important, draws on primary source materials to better understand how many of his most inventive dance numbers for film and television came about.

By scouring RKO, MGM and Paramount production files, as well as the papers of such collaborators as director Mark Sandrich, lyricist Johnny Mercer, songwriter Irving Berlin, and MGM’s musical jack-of-all-trades Roger Edens, among others, Decker is able to provide a valuable blueprint of how Astaire built many of his—

—greatest sequences. (When a new song written by Berlin or Cole Porter didn’t give him what he felt he needed, he called on his rehearsal pianist or a studio staff arranger to extend it or write entirely new music to suit his purposes. There are some revealing examples cited.)

Decker also illustrates in detail how Astaire enjoyed an autonomy almost unheard-of in Hollywood’s golden age. Everyone bent to his will so that he was the “auteur” of almost every number he performed. As we see, he was inspired by jazz, especially as played by black musicians of the period. At a time when it was difficult to integrate such numbers on camera he found subtle (or as Decker indicates, “coded”) ways to achieve the effect he wanted, as in the engine room number in Shall We Dance.

Some of the text may be too academic for certain readers. I skipped over some of the more detailed song/dance breakdowns, but much of it is not only readable but compelling, especially if you happen to love jazz. Decker may be the first Astaire chronicler to quote Down Beat magazine and other jazz sources, especially in describing the contribution of studio musicians (and occasional outsiders) to the soundtracks of the Astaire films.

My only quibble is the author’s survey of Hollywood’s other dancing leading men. I question the inclusion of George Raft, and bemoan the omission of Dan Dailey, who belongs on the rather short list of Astaire’s compatriots.

With so much original research and observation, Music Makes Me is a worthy addition to the books that have been inspired by the genius of Fred Astaire.

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July 2019
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