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A&E Home Video presents
The Songmakers Collection (2001)

"This is the Brill Building. In the nineteen-sixties, teenagers wrote hit songs here. Hundreds of them. This is the story of how they did it."
- Narrator (John Turturro)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: October 18, 2001

Stars: Burt Bacharach, Bobby Darin, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Dionne Warwick
Other Stars: Hal David, Ellie Greenwich, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Elton John, Ben E. King
Director: Morgan Neville, John Griffin

Manufacturer: IFPI
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild adult themes, brief language)
Run Time: 04h:19m:24s
Release Date: September 25, 2001
UPC: 733961703207
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ A-BA- D

DVD Review

The Songmakers Collection is a documentary series from the producers of A&E's acclaimed Biography, focusing on "the true stories of legendary pop performers" who flourished in New York in the 1960s. The 2-disc DVD set contains five episodes—one double-length, 90-minute episode and four 45-minute episodes. Good research and intelligent presentation bring us these tales of the Brill Building (the corporate Tin Pan Alley of the time), and the songwriters and performers who worked there, helping to drive the music business.

The episodes include:

Hitmakers: The Teens Who Stole Pop Music

Director Morgan Neville's double-length episode covers the amazing burst of activity generated in the early 1960s by Don Kirshner's stable of pop songwriters, which grew to include most of the greats of the day: Carole King and Geoffrey Goffin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Neil Sedaka (also a popular performer). The program details the growing influence of African-American artists on pop music, as the blues/rock 'n' roll idiom was adopted by talented Jewish teenagers from Brooklyn and reflected back through such artists as The Shirelles, The Coasters, Dionne Warwick, Little Eva and others. Interviews with most of the songwriters (Doc Pomus passed away in 1991, but appears in archival interview footage), performers (including Elton John, Ben E. King, Dionne Warwick and Steve Lawrence), and producers (Phil Ramone, Jerry Wexler and Russ Titelman) flesh out the story with character and humor. Carole King is particulary impressive here, articulate and down-to-earth as she discusses the songwriting career that preceded her own pop stardom in the 1970s and gives voice to her generation of songwriters.

Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over

This episode covers Ms. Warwick's career, as she moved from gospel singer to professional backup performer to pop star, recording many of the classic Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs of the sixties, including the enduring hit Walk On By. Born Dionne Warrick, her stage name was born of an unintentional typo on her first record's cover, and she remains a recognizable figure today, active in AIDS research funding efforts. The program does not avoid mention of her involvement with the "Psychic Friends Network" and the jokes and scandals that followed, and the controversy that occasionally labeled the African-American singer as "too white" is also discussed. Interviews with Warwick, her colleagues and family members make this an insightful, intimate profile.

Leiber and Stoller

In this episode, two Jewish teenagers in Los Angeles independently discover the rhythms and boogie-woogie piano stylings of African-American blues and jazz, then meet and become one of the greatest songwriting teams of their time. Such hits and standards as Hound Dog, Yakkety Yak and Riot in Cell Block #9 flowed from their songwriting/producing collaboration, which survived despite record company bankruptcies and unpaid royalties. Again, the program is enhanced by interviews with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, as well as their friends and family members.

Burt Bacharach

Pop songwriter Burt Bacharach is profiled, who (with lyricists Hal David and Carole Bayer Sager) penned such hits as What's New Pussycat?, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head and Walk On By. The episode covers his early struggles, his fascination with 52nd Street jazz in New York City, his reluctant career as a mediocre but popular singer, his marriage to Angie Dickinson and his more recent work with Elvis Costello. His brief encounter with Broadway as composer for the show Promises, Promises permits interviews with Neil Simon, Jerry Orbach and Joel Grey. Embarrassing footage from a legendary Hollywood flop, the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon, illustrates one of the few major failures in his career. Bacharach himself is honest and philosophical about his long career, and even those who find his work schmaltzy and simplistic will learn some interesting things about the man.

Bobby Darin

Directed by John Griffin, this episode is separated from the other four to some degree, detailing the life of Bobby Darin, a Sinatra-influenced young pop singer whose hits included Splish Splash and the popular recording of Kurt Weill's Mack the Knife. Darin worked with Jimmy Durante and George Burns, married actress Sandra Dee, earned an Academy Award® nomination, and participated in politics until his untimely death at the age of 37. Archival footage includes home movies from Darin's life, and interviews with his surviving family provide additional insight.

There is some redundancy among the episodes, as many of the same interviewees and incidents turn up in multiple stories, and the focus of the series is more narrow than the title might seem to imply. Music is rarely presented without narration or interview audio overlaid, and the series serves as a complement to the original recordings, not as a music disc in the traditional sense. But The Songmakers Collection will enlighten and entertain anyone with an interest in pop music history from 1960 to the present, and may stimulate this interest in others. Recommended.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The Songmakers Collection presents the program in its original made-for-television 1.33:1 full-frame format. The episodes are assembled from archival black & white and color film and video material, new interviews on video, filmed transition footage and still photographs, edited on videotape at 30 interlaced frames per second. The quality of these sources varies, and the analog video source introduces some edge enhancement and red/blue color aliasing on finely detailed patterns; there are also a few brief instances of digital blurring and blocking during quick motion. But the digital transfer is significantly improved over some earlier A&E releases, with fewer scan-line artifacts and a cleaner, smoother image overall—certainly watchable, and superior to cable and satellite signals.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The program is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, with most of the interview and narrative audio in monaural format, ProLogic-decoded to the center channel. Many vintage recordings are presented in stereophonic format, cleanly rendered (probably from remastered sources), and surrounds are called into service during a few musical tracks, most likely due to unintentionally out-of-phase signals in the original recordings. Voices are clear, and music benefits from competent frequency range, with a surprising degree of bass content. A solid presentation of The Songmakers' music-oriented documentary material, sounding better than many TV-targeted productions.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:07m:03s

Extras Review: The Songmakers Collection is light on extras, supported only by 36 text-menu chapter stops (one every seven minutes, approximately) and text-screen biography/discography entries covering Dionne Warwick, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Leiber and Stoller, Burt Bacharach, and Bobby Darin. But this is a documentary production, essentially a "supplement" to the music itself, and the absence of supplements is not a major issue.

Extras Grade: D

 

Final Comments

A&E's The Songmakers Collection presents several hours of well-researched, vividly portrayed documentary and biographical material on the Brill Building songwriters and pop music performers of the 1960s. Great stuff for any music fan or child of the era, nicely packaged on DVD.

 


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