The life story of an amazing man…

…woven into a superb documentary. In Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me Special Edition DVD, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Ricker simply perform magic.

Eastwood and Ricker distill Johnny Mercer’s almost unimaginably  successful career, and life into an immersive 90 minute “Mercer Experience” theme park ride … rich with the nuance and anecdotes of Johnny’s contemporaries and ambient with the music that made Mercer THE singular singer/songwriter of an era.

I’m saying it…

So, I think we should get this out of the way right up front … Johnny Mercer was the best, the absolute best singer/songwriter in the Great American Songbook era (from the ’30s to the ’70s) and — in my opinion — still remains atop the long and distinguished list of great popular standards lyricists.

Johnny may not have written the Great American Songbook single handedly, but he had lots to say in virtually every chapter. Whether swing or jazz; Broadway or Hollywood; waltzes or war ditties; love songs, torch numbers or the blues … whatever page the book falls open to Mercer is there.

Mercer by the numbers…

I’m not going to regurgitate Johnny’s career in this review … that would sort of defeat the purpose of extolling the virtues of this great documentary and spoil the fun for your watching.

But to give you a sense for how much influence this unassuming, gentleman-poet had in the music we all listen to and love today, just take in some stats from Johnny’s career (drawn from “Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World” – a book by Glenn T. Eskew)…

  • Mercer wrote/published over 1,500 songs
  • 100 of Johnny’s songs became hits
  • In 13 of those hits we find Johnny singing his own song
  • 4 of the “Johnny sung” hits reached #1
  • In one particular week in 1942 Mercer had 4 songs in top 10 of The Hit Parade!
  • Johnny collaborated with well over 100 composers (Carmichael, Arlen, Mancini… all the greats)
  • Mercer wrote music for nearly 400 movies (four… hundred!)
  • He was nominated for 18 Academy Awards
  • Won 4 “Best Song” Oscars
Oh, and in his spare time he thought it might be cool to start a record company … he founded a little concern you may have heard of — Capitol Records. He not only signed and nurtured some of the best talent of the day (Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee…) but was also Capitol’s most successful artist for several years selling over 10 Million records.

Johnny Mercer – “The Dream’s on Me”…

All the stats and numbers are great but they only sketch the outline of Johnny’s career and just begin to tell his story.  This Turner Classic Movies/Warner Bros. DVD release paints the complete JM picture … weaving a series of great BBC “looking back” interviews Johnny did late in his career with sidebars and song snippets from more than 45 of his contemporaries.

A blend of period interviews from his many composer collaborators, comments from music historians and warm remembrances from a veritable cornucopia of artists — Fred Astair, Andy Williams, Ella, Frank, Bing, Tony Bennett, Nat, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles … far too many to comprehensively list. In the aggregate, the mosaic they paint is one of a genuine and truly unique man with a singular talent for poetic expression, melody and life.

A man like any other…

Like all of us, Johnny had his foibles. He may not have been an alcoholic, but he was a self-admited “mean drunk”, often warning people in advance to his proclivities. He also apparently kept quite a few florists in business with his signature next morning “Apology Arrangement” flower deliveries!

He also had it bad for Judy Garland. They had the worst kept secret affair running for awhile until Johnny’s wife stopped by the studio and confronted Judy. Johnny’s interest though never waned and many of his great songs like “Laura”, “Emily”  and “I Remember You” are thought to be the outpouring of Johnny’s life long semi-requited love for Judy.

Clint and the production team give appropriate weight to Johnny’s imperfections without trying to make the documentary an exposé. Likewise they did not go into detail on Johnny’s passing in 1976. Sadly, John was taken from us too soon by a brain tumor. He was only 66 and I can’t help thinking about the songs we might be hearing out of Diana Krall, Michael Bublé, Steve Tyrell and the rest of the New Guard if we had 20 or so more Mercer years.

The DVD…

This is a pretty straightforward DVD package but Disc 2 does harbor some interesting extra features. Clint briefly interviews John Williams and Jamie Cullum (separately) “at the piano”, which is pretty neat, and there are two nice photo essays narrated by Mercer’s niece.

The first photo essay is a series of family shots that was OK, but it was the second essay I found particularly interesting. Like Tony Bennett (or maybe vice versa) Johnny painted a great deal … seeing Johnny’s creativity expressed in another medium added something extra and unexpected to what I know about the man that was cool.

The best extra feature though are the 10 studio performances. You see significant slices of these performance pieces woven into the mainline of the documentary but here they are rendered complete and some of them are simply stunning. The best of the lot are…

  • “That Old Black Magic” (Mercer/Harold Arlen) performed by Jamie Cullum … just Jamie and his piano
  • “Laura” (Mercer/David Raksin) performed by Michael Feinstein with Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar
  • “Skylark” (Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael) sung by Maude Maggart with Jamie Cullum on piano (see it on video below)
If you like these new era artists performing Mercer’s best, check out the soundtrack LP — “Clint Eastwood Presents: Johnny Mercer “The Dream’s On Me” A Celebration of His Music” where they roll up the audio from the 10 performance videos on the DVD and add 8 additional numbers.

Overall…

I can’t give this DVD enough recommendation props … If you’re reading this piece that means you have some — probably a lot of — interest in the American Songbook. Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me DVD is MANDATORY viewing.

Even though I’ve been a Johnny Mercer fan for many years. I still expected to learn some new stuff from watching the DVD. I did, but that’s not what I really took away from this cool documentary. It’s the additive buildup of pure awe that you get as the 90 minute “Mercer experience” washes over you … the songs, the movies, the collaborations, his talent, his life. It’s really too much for any single person to accomplish … even knowing most of it in advance doesn’t blunt the awe (or the fun!).

My wife says … “He wrote everything!” … after watching this DVD, it’s hard to argue with her.

Skylark video…

Share