Monday, November 15, 2021

DOC NYC ’21: Dean Martin, King of Cool

Like Miles Davis or Picasso, Dean Martin had distinct periods to his career. There was the Martin & Lewis era, the early-Rat Pack Oceans 11 years, and the late-Rat Pack Cannonball Run period. Throughout it all, he maintained megawatt star-power. Tom Donahue chronicles his life and career in Dean Martin: King of Cool, which screens as part of the 2021 DOC NYC, until its TCM premiere.

Martin grew up speaking Italian in his working-class Italian family. He mostly scuffled as a boxer and a big band vocalist, until he met a comic on the vaudeville circuit named Jerry Lewis. As Martin & Lewis, they became the biggest duo-act in Hollywood, but everyone assumed Lewis was the one primarily responsible for their success. However, a fairly influential show business figure by the name of Frank Sinatra recognized Martin’s talents.

Donahue does solid work documenting the ups and downs of Martin’s career. He makes it clear the crooner was no mere sidekick or a boozy novelty act in the style of Foster Brooks. In fact, viewers of Generation X-age and younger might be surprised how popular his top-10 TV variety show was in its day. Donahue’s talking heads also give him a lot of credit for standing up to Sinatra, particularly when he refused to perform for JFK’s inauguration, when they axed Sammy Dais Jr., so as not to offend the solidly-Democratic, segregationist South.

Frankly, Donahue’s film is likely to inspire a lot of fresh new respect for Martin, which is what this sort of documentary should do. One of the leading voices in the film is his daughter Deana, but it is still a balanced portrait rather than fannish hagiography. Yet, there are some genuinely poignant moments, especially when it addresses the death of his son, Dean Paul Martin in 1987. Tragically, the younger Martin died while on active-duty with the California Air National Guard, when he encountered a freak meteorological incident. In fact, the younger Martin also deserves great credit for his service. It was something he did not need to do, since he had his own active acting career, yet he still wanted to serve.

For those who grew up in the 1980s, Martin was someone you were accustomed to see on TV, just because he was famous. Donahue and company nicely explain his enduring appeal and put his entire career in context. Still, “the king of cool?” Cooler than Miles Davis? Cooler than Billy Eckstine? Maybe not, but yes, he was definitely cool. Regardless, it is tough to beat the nostalgia of seeing Martin appear on vintage productions, like the Jerry Lewis MD telethon. Highly recommended as pop culture and pop music history,
Dean Martin: King of Cool screens in-person again today (11/15) and online 11/15-11/18) during this year’s DOC NYC, before premiering Friday (11/19) on TCM.