Monday, November 02, 2009

The Johnny Mercer Centennial on TCM

Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is probably best remembered for its soundtrack, consisting entirely of classic songs written by Savannah, Georgia’s favorite son, Johnny Mercer. Eastwood, a well known jazz supporter and occasional pianist, now serves as the co-executive producer and presenter of Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me, a new documentary tribute to the singer-songwriter debuting on Turner Classic Movies this Wednesday, as part of the network’s month long celebration of Mercer’s centennial.

Mercer was an Academy Award winning songwriter who co-founded Capitol Records. He was a popular recording artist in his own right, having come up through the ranks of the Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman big bands. While hip jazz and cabaret artists often record Mercer songbook projects, the Mercer name might not be as familiar to contemporary audiences, despite his storied career. However, Mercer’s lyrics remain instantly recognizable thanks to his classic standards, like “One More for My Baby,” originally written for Fred Astaire but immortalized by Frank Sinatra, “Jeepers Creepers,” which became a breakout hit for Louis Armstrong, and one of the most successful movie songs ever penned, “Moon River,” written with Henry Mancini for Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Dream gives Mercer his due not just as a prolific lyricist, but also as a distinctive vocalist, whose laidback style helped bankroll Capitol Records in its early days. For instance, we hear how his distinctly laidback jazz-oriented delivery elevates a novelty number like “Jamboree Jones” into a real swinging affair in an appearance on the Rosemary Clooney Show.

Mercer collaborated with just about everyone, most notably including Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Arlen, and Jerome Kern. With his deep southern roots, Mercer’s work has readily lent itself to jazz interpretation by the likes of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (heard briefly in Dream) and pianist Bill Charlap (the son of songwriter Moose Charlap and vocalist Sandy Stewart), who serves as narrator for the program and plays over the ending credits.

Producer-director Bruce Ricker (who previously helmed Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends seen on PBS's American Masters) crafts a classy tribute to Mercer, incorporating extensive vintage Hollywood clips and interviews from admiring musicians and vocalists, like Bennett, Andre Previn, Dame Cleo Laine, Johnny Dankworth, and Margaret Whiting. Eastwood also serves as host for some original sessions of Mercer songs including notable combos, like Broadway star Audra McDonald accompanied by composer John Williams on piano, as well as Eastwood’s daughter Morgan singing the title tune backed by Larry Goldings on piano with her brother Kyle on bass.

Nicely balancing biography with music, Dream conveys a good sense of both the man and his songs. Debuting this Wednesday (11/4), it is an entertaining and informative portrait of one of the great lyricists and vocalists of the American Songbook tradition. Dream kicks off TCM’s celebration of Mercer throughout the month of November, with regular Wednesday screenings of films featuring Mercer songs (including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Blues in the Night, and The Days of Wine and Rose) as well as a full day of Mercer on November 18th to commemorate his 100th birthday.

(Photo credit: Adam Rose)