Reviewer's Note: My previous review of This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends was based on a promotional copy of the DVD that was sent to DVDTalk, which I indicated at the top of that review. And while anyone reading that review could tell that I'm a huge fan of Tom Jones and of his sensational TV variety series - probably because I came right out and said so in the review - I had problems with the set-up of Time-Life's three-disc DVD box set. Fortunately, a final shelf copy of This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends was recently sent to DVDTalk, and I'm happy to say it's a big improvement over the review discs I received. There are still drawbacks to the set, including some of the material chosen for inclusion, as well as with the video image, but there are big improvements and extras, as well, that compensate. So I've updated my review - as well as my recommendation of This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends.
Okay, ladies - get your room keys and panties ready, because This Is Tom Jones! Time-Life has released a three-disc compilation, This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends, of eight episodes from Tom Jones' internationally syndicated hit variety series, This is Tom Jones, which aired from 1969 to 1971. Only six at the time, I still remember bits and pieces of this show because my mother watched Mr. Jones religiously. Evidently, she had sort of a "thing" for Tom Jones, and by "thing," I mean she would have left her entire family for good if he showed up on her doorstep - just kidding, Mom (not really). I bring up that rather disturbing fact for a reason; if you only know Tom Jones from his later, ironic, self-parodistic appearances in films like Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, you have absolutely no idea what effect this guy had (and still does) on women. Watching This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends brought all that back for me; seeing the barely controlled hysteria of the women in the audience, watching them going absolutely ape for the ultra-sexualized gyrations of this handsome, barrel-chested baritone, is frankly rather awe-inspiring. Tom Jones was it, man.
This is Tom Jones was produced by Sir Lew Grade's ATV/ITC Productions, and aired on ABC mid-season in 1969, until mid-season in 1970-1971. In its first full season in 1969-1970, This is Tom Jones unfortunately went up against hits Ironside and the CBS Thursday Night Movie. Not getting much traction there, the show was moved to the graveyard - Friday nights at 10:00PM - the following year, where it only lasted a half season. Filmed at first mostly in London, This is Tom Jones then switched gears and shot many episodes in Hollywood, benefitting from the high-powered talent and musical acts that regularly performed there.
Watching This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends, it's hard to believe Tom is only about twenty-nine years old; he's such an accomplished, confident performer that he comes off much more mature than you'd expect for such a relatively young singer. What also struck me was how varied Tom's choice of songs were. Rocking out a belter one minute, he slipped easily into crooning a ballad the next, followed by an up-tempo pop tune. Even more impressive is his hanging with some serious artists like Joplin, Joe Cocker, and Aretha Franklin. I remember reading once that Joplin (who had a serious jones to "be" with Jones) thought he had the single best voice in music during the sixties. And he proves it in his amazing duet with her (watch her wonderful reaction when Tom throws in an unplanned whistle at her during their song). Anyone thinking Jones was just some "lounge act" should watch this DVD and learn. He's the equal to his guest stars. Perhaps that's the key to his amazing longevity and the fact that he still packs them in wherever he appears (when I was in Vegas; his was the first show I wanted to see - sold out for three days in advance). His voice, perhaps one of the most powerful baritones in popular music, is quite an instrument. Tom has often listed singers like Frankie Laine and Jerry Lee Lewis as inspirations, so it's not surprising that he could blast the doors off the auditorium when he felt like it. There are several moments in This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends, where one is really kind of awestruck at the power of that bellowing, yet supremely controlled, voice. A Welshman, Tom's national heritage is one of love of singing, and that sense of joy of performance comes through clear and strong.
Of course, it wasn't just the voice that thrilled audiences - specifically, female audiences. Watching This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends, there are numerous instances where Jones, a consummate audience manipulator, goes over to the women sitting in the audience, and is almost pulled off the stage by the intense sexual fury of the female spectators. There's a classic moment where Jones does a little cat-like creep towards one side of the stage, and these three women, almost as if pulled by invisible strings, rise up as one grasping unit, trying to get a hold on him. It's a genuine, spontaneous moment, and from the expressions on their faces, the women clearly have given themselves over to the moment. It's really quite something to see. After all, this was a staged television show. Audiences sat there, they were undoubtedly given instructions on how to behave for the camera, and it's probably safe to assume they may have had to sit for hours while technical matters involved with shooting were worked out. So seeing these seemingly normal, polite women of all ages spontaneously turn into rapacious graspers and kissers whenever Jones moves towards them, is both hysterically funny and surprisingly thrilling.
Which brings up an interesting point about Jones' persona. We've all seen the aggressive, hyper-macho dancing of Jones in action. It's clear when he's dancing, there's a palpable effect on the female audience members. But if Jones came off as nothing more than some kind of preening peacock, too into himself to take his fans seriously, he would never have caused the kinds of pandemonium he did in his concert acts (I've seen footage of Jones on stage, getting pelted with wave after wave of room keys and panties - the women in the audience were absolutely climbing the walls). But Jones is clever, always letting the audience in on the ridiculousness of it all, with his knowing but shy smile. It's exaggerated performance, almost a parody of macho posturing, and Jones knows it. He loves it, he's great at it, and he knows you know he loves doing it. Always the gentleman on stage, he's both dangerous and accessible. He's the kind of guy women want to claw at, and other men want to be like - a regular guy. For proof, just watch the audience during his performances. The women are going nuts, and the guys, they're applauding and laughing along with Tom. They're not threatened by his act; they recognize it for what it is, and they admire his skill at pulling it off.
Which brings us to the This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends three-disc set. When the discs stick to showing the performances by Tom and his guests, who include The Who, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, The Moody Blues, Little Richard, Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, and Janis Joplin, it's a knockout. The original video sources aren't very good, but the sheer energy and talent on display by Tom and his guests is thrilling. As a fervent fan of vintage TV, I would have preferred to see the complete episodes of the This is Tom Jones series, in chronological order, and most importantly, uncut. That's my preference as a film and TV historian, and a lover of all things TV. The three-disc set of This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends however, gives us a random selection of episodes from seasons one and two, out of order, and most egregiously, edited down from the hour long originals (episodes run about twenty to thirty minutes or so here).
Now, since this is essentially a "Best of" compilation (and the first volume of more planned releases), I can live with the edited shows. However, the title of this box set, This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends, is misleading. Wouldn't you think, after seeing that title, that these selections are going to be singing performances only? I certainly did. But upon viewing, an inordinate amount of time was wasted on showcasing totally lame comedy bits by Pat Paulsen (never, ever funny), The Ace Trucking Company (way over-rated), The Committee (heinously unfunny), and that guy who used to go, "You can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay, or you...(just as annoyingly unfunny as he was thirty-some years ago). Now, in the context of complete episodes, their inclusion would be mandatory; after all, that's the point of complete, intact TV sets on DVD. But if you're going to do a selection of moments highlighting Tom Jones and the legendary musical guests from his show, don't you take every second available on those three discs to showcase him, and his guests, instead of putting on skit after skit of excruciatingly unfunny bits by comedians who are of no interest to the music buyers of this set? We're even saddled with "dramatic readings" by Anne Bancroft, and a surprisingly unfunny bit by Peter Sellers (written by Monty Python's Graham Chapman and John Cleese, who should have known better). Annoying still is the fact that the opening credits for the shows have been left intact, so you're treated to the tease that The Hollies are going to perform...and then they never show up in the queue.
Hey, I'm a huge fan of Tom Jones; I have no problem stating that right up front. And watching these bits and pieces of This is Tom Jones after over thirty-five years was a revelation to me as to just what a magnetic, powerful performer he was (and is). And I'm well aware of the frequent complaints from readers and buyers who lament critics giving negative reviews to DVD sets of their favorite shows, crying "foul!" and predicting doom for DVD releases of future sets (I still get grief for that Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman review). And it's my understanding that quite a few older series such as This is Tom Jones depend on a certain percentage of the original show be included to garner a licensing contract. But I think the key word there is "quite a few." Not all older programs do that for their licensing contracts. As well, Tom's show was an hour long (with commercials); surely there was enough musical material from each episode to largely eliminate the comedy routines that aren't going to interest the majority of buyers who just want to see Tom and his guests - particularly since the main thrust of this box set is to highlight the original series, not present it as intact and complete.
I don't think this fact is lost on the producers of the DVD, either, since each disc's main menu features two options that clearly indicate that the comedy material can safely be skipped. First, you can choose to hear "Music Only," which allows you the opportunity to individually pick and play all the musical performances on the edited shows - Tom and his guests included. Second, there's an option to pick and play "Tom's Songs Only," for those fans who need their Jones fix fast. If you want to play the entire (but remember, still edited) episode, you can; this option features a newly recorded intro by Tom himself, introducing each show (except for the Little Richard one) and giving a little bit of a lowdown on the production. Tom's just as charming and good-natured in these intros as you'd expect him to be (as well as looking about twenty years younger than he really is), with these intros are a major extra for the set.
Here are the 8, edited episodes from the three-disc This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends DVD set:
Episode # 1, Original air date: February 7th, 1969
Tom sings It's Not Unusual, Help Yourself, and in The Concert section, Kansas City and Danny Boy. The Moody Blues perform Departure and Ride My See-Saw; Mary Hopkin sings Those Were The Days, and Peter Sellers and Richard Pryor provide comedy sketches. (Running Time: 36:22)
Episode # 11, Original air date: April 18th, 1969
Tom performs It's Not Unusual, Hello Young Lovers, The Rose, and in The Concert section, Turn On Your Lovelight and Shake. The Who perform Pinball Wizard, and Pat Paulsen tries -- and fails -- to be funny (This episode segment is taken from a black and white video master; it is not in color). (Running Time: 22:4)
Episode # 42, Original air date: September 25, 1970
Tom performs Ain't That Good News, I (Who Have Nothing), What's New, Pussycat?, The Look of Love and What the World Needs Now is Love with Burt Bacharach, Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head with Bacharach and Big Jim Sullivan, and in The Concert segment, I'll Never Fall in Love Again, Green, Green Grass of Home, Love Me Tonight, and It's Not Unusual. The Ace Trucking Company strive for laughs, as does Anne Bancroft, after she reads a woeful dramatic scene. (Running Time: 33:22)
Episode # 25, Original air date: November 27, 1969
Tom performs It's Not Unusual, I've Got Plenty o' Nuttin', and Jenny, Rip It Up, Send Me Some Lovin', Good Golly, Miss Molly with Little Richard, and in The Concert segment, Don't Fight It. Little Richard performs Lucille, and The Ace Trucking Company show up again. (Running Time: 20:29)
Episode # 26, Original air date: December 4th, 1969
Tom sings It's Not Unusual, You Came A Long Way From St. Louis, Raise Your Hand, with Janis Joplin, and in The Concert section, In the Midnight Hour, Danny Boy, and Land of 1000 Dances. Janis Joplin sings Little Girl Blue, and The Committee supplies the skits. (Running Time: 35:33)
Episode # 36, Original air date: February 19th , 1970
Tom performs It's Not Unusual, We Can Work it Out, Delta Lady, with Joe Cocker, Somewhere with Leslie Uggams, and in The Concert segment, She Loves Me. Joe Cocker and The Grease Band performs Angle Eyes and The Letter. (Running Time: 20:39)
Episode # 12, Original air date: April 25th, 1969
Tom performs It's Not Unusual, and a medley with Stevie Wonder of A Place in the Sun, Uptight, It's Not Unusual, Nothing's Too Good For My Baby, Uptight, and in The Concert section, Lucille. Stevie Wonder sings a medley of For Once in My Life, Thank You For Love, and For Once in My Life. Pat Paulsen shows up. There's an interesting bonus here for this disc; choosing your angle button on your remote, you can switch between the British and American versions of Tom's songs with Stevie Wonder. Pretty cool. (Running Time: 21:08)
Episode # 44, Original air date: October 9, 1970
Tom sings Ain't That Good News, a medley with Aretha Franklin of It's Not Unusual, See Saw, and Spirit in the Dark, along with a duet with Franklin on The Party's Over, and in The Concert section, Lodi. Aretha Franklin sings I Say a Little Prayer. The Ace Trucking Company is here, along with Bob Hope??? (Running Time: 29:05)
Granted, the This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends transfers are taken from original source materials that might not be in the best shape, but it doesn't appear that a lot was done to clean these up digitally. It's a pretty soft picture, which deteriorates on a big monitor. In the Janis Joplin segment, there are big sideways lines of video dropout that eventually fade away, and the second episode segment is in black and white, not color (only a kinescope remains for this episode). They can do amazing things with video restoration today, but obviously this wasn't attempted here.
The English 2.0 mono presentation is entirely inadequate for this kind of DVD.
Extras for This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends include on disc one, a short ABC network promo for the premiere of This is Tom Jones, along with the start-ups of The Generation Gap and Let's Make a Deal game shows. Next, there's a filmed interview with Tom, from 1969, that appeared on KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon, where he discusses the premiere of the show. It runs 5:50. And last, there's a short, four minute story by Tom, newly shot, where he explains how Burt Bacharach convinced him to sing the title song for the film, What's New, Pussycat?. On disc three, we have a newly taped interview with Tom, from February 11, 207, where he discusses in detail the origins of This is Tom Jones, as well as some great background info on his career beginnings. It runs 33:53, and it's terrific. There's also a colorful 12 page booklet included that gives detailed info on each episode included in the This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends disc set.
While the sound and video are not improved over the review copy I was sent, the bonuses help make up for the compromised technical quality of the This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends three disc set. While I would have preferred either complete, unedited versions of the This is Tom Jones, or music-only segments, Time-Life has made the wise decision to allow the viewer to access the musical segments of the show, so you can skip all those lame comedy bits. Those options, along with Tom's newly shot intros and extras (he's still got it, man), raise This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends up to recommended status -- and I for one am glad for it. If you want to understand the 60s music and television scene, This is Tom Jones: Rock 'N' Roll Legends is must viewing. Gwyn eich byd a dymunaf i chwi lawenydd bob amser.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.