If you missed this documentary special on Turner Classic Movies, it’s a must-see for anyone who loves the Great American Songbook and the era in which it flourished. It’s now been released on DVD with a second disc of bonus material. Produced by Clint Eastwood (who first paid tribute to Mercer in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which took place in the songwriter’s home town of Savannah, Georgia) and directed by Bruce Ricker, the program compresses…
an astonishing show-business career into a fast-paced 90 minutes that incorporates vintage film and television clips, several outstanding interviews Mercer gave in later years, and observations by friends, colleagues, and admirers (including me). Mercer provided songs for a wide range of movies, from Hollywood Hotel to The Harvey Girls to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and had four Oscars to show for it. I would have enjoyed seeing longer excerpts from some of the rare old TV shows Ricker and associate producers Howard Green and Dan Wingate dug up, but it’s difficult to level much criticism at a show that is so thoroughly entertaining. And while we get to see Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Fred Astaire, Nat “King” Cole, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, The Mills Brothers, Andy Williams, and Dinah Shore, in their prime, singing some of Mercer’s greatest songs, the real treat is watching Johnny Mercer himself, who was possibly the best interpreter of his own material.
Disc Two does provide complete versions of the songs performed especially for this program by an impressive array of vocalists and musicians: Jamie Cullum, Michael Feinstein (backed by the great jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli), Dr. John, the ageless Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Maude Maggart (who offers an exquisite rendition of my favorite Mercer song, “Skylark”), and Audra McDonald accompanied by no less than John Williams on the piano. An informal chat between Clint Eastwood and John Williams may seem unstructured, but Williams is amazingly articulate and makes many keen observations about Mercer, whom he knew and worked with.
Another pleasant surprise is a personal view of Mercer provided by his niece Nancy Gerard. The family photos are interesting, but the selection of watercolors by Mercer is truly eye-opening. Who could have known that this gifted wordsmith was also a talented artist—in a medium that’s especially difficult to master?
I’ve always loved Johnny Mercer, as a performer and as a lyricist, and this documentary pays him proper tribute. It’s a keeper. (Warner Home Video)