Carole King, James Taylor, and The Great American Songbook.

We saw Carole King and James Taylor in concert last night, at the Allstate Arena outside Chicago. One thing that occurred to me during the great evening is how each one, in his/her body of work, synthesized the entirety of twentieth century music — including jazz and the Great American Songbook of theater, film and popular music advanced by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and others, along with what came before, and what came later. (Joni Mitchell, while great, is too idiosyncratic, and too much in the worlds of folk and jazz as a songwriter to the exclusion of other forms, to quite fit the picture.) The harmonic language of the Great American Songbook is in their music, and since nearly everything else American is in it, too, that means just about everything. The GAS element is simplified a tad, and used as a color, rather than the color, because of their distilling it through the filters of gospel, sixties pop, R&B, folk, rock, and blues, but it’s there. Listening to their songs again (the two artists alternated in the spotlight through the evening, providing backup for the other when not in it), I was awestruck by the enormity of their accomplishment.

Put it this way: If you decided that it was important that somebody take on the impossible task of summarizing the entire history of twentieth century popular music and blending it into a coherent personal style, you’d find that two songwriters, improbably, had actually done it. Each artist is appreciated by his/her millions of fans, but I’m not sure that each one’s achievement, when viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century looking back on the twentieth, has ever been given full measure. It began to dawn on me last night.


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The Dream Happens One More Time This Month.

Although I expected to like the TCM documentary Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me (which I caught last night), I didn’t expect to be floored by it. But I was.

The film exists because Clint Eastwood willed it into existence. He produced the film (occasioned by the centennial of the great lyricist’s birth this month) and it bears his stamp in several ways. One of those ways is that it contains all sorts of amazing clips that never would been unearthed and never would have been licensed were it not for Eastwood’s clout. Written and directed by Bruce Ricker, who has worked with Eastwood a long time on various music and film projects (including Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser), the film is beautifully constructed (I give Eastwood credit for that as well as Ricker) and is a surprisingly satisfying account of Mercer’s life and work. Perhaps the highest praise you can give any documentary biography is that it makes you not just know the man, but feel him. This film does.

And Mercer was a really cool guy, as well as being our greatest poet. (Take that, Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.) Knowing him, and feeling him, is a good thing.

The doc contains about a minute-and-a-half of unfortunate “vanity project” flavor when Eastwood’s teenage daughter sings a Mercer song in a recording studio (she sings pleasantly but amateurishly, and I’m not sure what Eastwood was thinking other than to do something nice for his daughter), but the other 88 ½ minutes of the film are at a level of excellence seldom seen in the documentary genre. That vanity moment occurs fairly early on, so when you see it, just persevere and get past it. You will be rewarded.

While patriotism is not the subject of the film, this thorough picture of the man from Savannah made me, yes, proud to be an American. Any country that could produce a Johnny Mercer can’t be all bad. Just one more showing of the film is scheduled this month: tomorrow, Wednesday November 18 (the date of Mercer’s hundredth birthday), at 5 PM Central, on TCM. Then not again until December 19. A DVD comes out on December 8. Get it. But don’t wait for it.