Shout Factory's The Dick Cavett Show - Rock Icons is misleading in the good sense. Though packed with great performances by some of the biggest and best talent of the late-1960s to mid-1970s music scene, this turns out to be but the tip of the iceberg. The real delight watching this three-disc set (with a running time of about nine hours) is everything else, the entire package, which includes some surprising non-musical guests not even hinted at in most ads.
The set is mostly composed of complete episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, which kicked around in various timeslots on ABC and elsewhere over the years, but always maintained a level of intelligence, honesty, and flexibility that's all but vanished from television today. Most of the rock stars appear within the context of complete 65-70-minute episodes (originally in 90-minute time slots). Unlike today, where musicians on The Tonight Show or Late Night tend to perform a number and get off or, if they're a big enough name, sit with the host for maybe 30-90 seconds, the guests on Cavett will talk at length about their art, frequently interacting with other guests.
The line-up of rock stars and their music goes like this:
Disc 1: August 19, 1969 "We Can Be Together," "Volunteers" (Jefferson Airplane); "Chelsea Morning," "Willy," and "For Free" (Joni Mitchell); "4 + 20" (Stephen Stills); "The Fiddle And The Drum" (Joni Mitchell); "Somebody To Love" (Jefferson Airplane with David Crosby) July 13, 1970 "Thank You / Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again" (Sly And The Family Stone) December 5, 1974 "1984," "Young Americans" (David Bowie)
Disc 2 (all Janis Joplin): July 18, 1969 "To Love Somebody," "Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)" June 25, 1970 "Move Over," "Get It While You Can" August 3, 1970 "Half Moon," "My Baby"
Disc 3: August 11, 1970 "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer" (Stevie Wonder); November 23, 1971 "Two Faced Man" (Gary Wright and Wonderwheel with George Harrison), "Bangla Desh" (George Harrison) September 5, 1974 "American Tune," "Still Crazy After All These Years" (Paul Simon), "Loves Me Like A Rock," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (Paul Simon with The Jessy Dixon Singers)
Though the performances are nice, the limitations of that era's video and audio technology limit their value and interest, though the first episode, the justly famous "Woodstock Show," is a great document of popular culture. However, these limitations are more than compensated by the interviews coming after and between their live performances. That Dick Cavett was something of a square genuinely intrigued by these people and their music (and only a few years older than most of them) gave him better and more enthusiastic access to musical guests who rarely if ever did other talk shows.
The intelligence of many of these guests will doubtlessly surprise some. George Harrison at 28 comes off as an entirely unpretentious, unassuming man wiser and much more mature than most 28-year-olds. After inconspicuously performing with Gary Wright (Harrison's pianist on All Things Must Pass), he plugs the brand new Monty Python's Flying Circus ("You should get it over here. It's really good!"), and openly discusses his unhappiness as a Beatle with far more songs that his album quotas will allow.
Mick Jagger, in a 14-minute extra called Cavett meets The Rolling Stones, is playful but comes off as unexpectedly shrewd business-wise. "Can you picture yourself at 60, doing what you're doing now?" Cavett asks. Mick's response: "Easily." Cavett is utterly bemused during an extra-dimensional encounter with Sly Stone, and obviously fascinated yet terrified of the eccentric, very nervous David Bowie, who's equally terrified of Cavett.
An entire disc has appropriately been set aside for Janis Joplin, who got on with Cavett in a way that's endlessly fascinating. As Bob Weide points out in his newly-recorded interview with the talk show host, he treats her "like a lady," with a gentlemanly respect that visually is at odds with the boa-wearing Texan who had a face like W.C. Fields.
Part of the fascination in watching these DVDs is the shows themselves which, despite their comparative primitiveness in some areas, are generally far superior to almost every talk show on TV today. The guests - and not just the rock stars but the movie actors, politicians, writers and sports stars - tend to speak franker and less conscious of their public image than they do as talk show guests today. Janis Joplin has no hesitation interrupting Raquel Welch, on the show to promote her infamous Myra Breckenridge (1970), that she couldn't understand the movie and found it choppy, while Harrison defends Cavett's questions about the industry's drug use despite a roar of disapproval from the hippie audience.
Perhaps this DVD set's biggest charm is the often wildly disparate guests and their interaction with one another. The Stevie Wonder show, for instance, includes Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein), Alain Delon (Purple Noon), and cowboy star-turned-politician Tex Ritter. Good as Wonder's songs are (and his "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer" is superb), this reviewer was even more fascinated listening to Lanchester wittily discuss working with director James Whale, life as an unhappy student of Isadora Duncan, and discussing husband Charles Laughton's legacy; the French Delon confused by Cavett's play on English words and uneasiness talking about the murder scandal that almost ruined his life; and Tex Ritter, who after singing "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)," talking about his 6-day Westerns and unsuccessful campaign against Al Gore Sr. The Paul Simon show has writers Anthony Burgess Barbara Howar, and Jerzy Kosinski (the latter making a prophetic observation about original writing) oddly interviewing Cavett about his new book, but this turns into a terrific discussion about the art of writing, hardly the stuff of network talk shows.
The second Joplin show features the aforementioned Raquel Welch (who shares praise for R. Crumb with Joplin), Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Chet Huntley. The final show, despite an out-of-place appearance by football star Dave Meggysey, is notable for bringing together three very unconventional women: Joplin, Gloria Swanson, and an impossibly young Margot Kidder. Great stuff.
Video & Audio
Given their age, and the fact that five nights-a-week shows from this era often survive not at all, the full frame presentations are in good shape. Created off the original masters, this material looks and sounds about as good as it ever will. The menus and organization of material is well done, and chapter stops wisely come at the commercial breaks. The Bowie performance and interview comes from another source, apparently, ABC's Wide World of Entertainment, but the quality on that is par with the other material. The Mick Jagger interview, filmed at Madison Square Garden, was shot on film and preserved on videotape. There are no subtitle options, alas.
Cavett offers brief intros to each show, but viewers are advised to watch the entertaining and informative Dick Cavett Interview by Emmy-Award winning director Bob Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm). Running 33 minutes, Weide and Cavett discuss the show and most of its musical guests, with Cavett offering terrific insight on Joplin in particular. (He tells a great story of taking her to see Easy Rider, she armed with a bottle of Southern Comfort.)
This is a terrific set and, thanks to all the unannounced interview subjects, a real surprise. For this reason The Dick Cavett Show - Rock Icons is Highly Recommended not just to rock fans, but anyone interested in that turbulent era of Vietnam, Nixon, and Rock'n'Roll.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.