Made as part of the PBS American Masters series, Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built was put together to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the pioneering music label and the man who started it all.
The story of Ahmet Ertegun is probably worthy of several much lengthier endeavors, but as a primer, this film does its job. Born into a diplomatic Turkish family, Ahmet came to this country in 1935 when his father was Turkey's ambassador to America. Fascinated by American popular culture, Ahmet was blissfully free of the prejudice that divided much of our country's art. His skill as a raconteur is quickly evident as he tells the story of being in seventh grade and sneaking out to see jazz in Harlem. It was the seminal moment in a life of always being in the thick of it. If something was going down, Ahmet Eretgun wanted to be there.
Filmed just before Ahmet died last year at the age of 83 (he slipped and hit his head backstage at a Rolling Stones concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of Bill Clinton, so you see what I mean by being in the thick of it?), Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built combines contemporary interviews with vintage photographs of the man at work and at play. Interview subjects include artists who were on Atlantic, ranging from Ben E. King to Mick Jagger and Aretha Franklin to songwriters Leiber and Stoller. Some of the folks are also admirers, like Def Jam executive Lyor Cohen and film director Taylor Hackford. Amusingly, how Hackford portrayed Ahmet in the movie Ray is much criticized at the outset of this movie, but a conversation between Ahmet and Ray Charles about the writing of "Mess Around" is juxtaposed with the dramatization from the film, and Hackford is slightly vindicated. The Ray Charles session is indicative of how the movie's material was gathered: put Ahmet in a room with one of his cohorts and get them talking, and see what comes out. Chats with Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton, and Bette Midler (who also narrates the picture) yield some fantastic anecdotes about the fierce and unflagging creativity Ahmet fostered.
Atlantic started as a jazz and R&B label, signing black artists like Ruth Brown at a time when that was not considered a commercial venture. The indie label survived the payola-infested 1950s, emerging with hits from the Coasters and their first successful white act, Bobby Darin. From there, Ahmet kept a close eye on the evolution of popular music, branching out by signing British rock groups that had cut their teeth on his label's back catalogue and also noticing the burgeoning scene going on in California, snagging Buffalo Springfield for Atlantic. Not all of his moves were the right ones. For instance, he had to be convinced to buy the movie rights to Woodstock and sold Atlantic to Warner Bros. before that gold mine would yield its mother load, but even there, the man falls backwards into success. The program could have done with maybe a little more of the downside, as surely there must have been some failures for this man or a few disgruntled employees. The closest we get is a royalty scandal in the late 1980s, but even that is used to show how quickly Ahmet did the right thing.
Naturally, artistic fortunes were waning for Atlantic by then anyway, and it's no surprise that the last thirty years of this 60th celebration is covered in the last twenty minutes of this nearly two-hour movie. It's only then that Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built becomes overly aggrandizing, cataloguing the multiple lifetime achievement awards that he received at the end of his life. Granted, they are much deserved, but we've seen this final rah-rah reel before. It rings a little hollow when Kid Rock is presented as the label's crowning achievement of the last decade, and we even start to smell the commercial as one of Ahmet's most recent signings, some kid named Paolo Nutini whom I'd never heard of (and from the song he plays, I wish I never had), takes center stage.
Even so, that's not nearly enough to undo the excellent documentary director Susan Steinberg had already put together. Next to Ahmet Ertegun's fantastic stories, the real star of Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built is the music, and since the label participated in the production of the show, we get a healthy dose of vintage performances from Atlantic artists. These go all the way back to the earliest Atlantic stars like Ruth Brown and Ben E. King, and then take us through great numbers by Darin, Solomon Burke, Cream, Otis Redding, and more. Once the DVD was over, I rushed to my iTunes to try to grab some of the tracks I just heard (there's a great Ruth Brown EP from Rhino I recommend). It's the music that is Ahmet's true legacy, and it's what keeps your toe tapping as this enjoyable documentary plays and what sticks with you when it's all done. That one man's vision helped shape such a legacy is awe-inspiring, and it's why Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built can be forgiven if it gets a little overly animated in patting Ahmet Ertegun on the back.
Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built is shown in a letterboxed format. Made just this year for broadcasting on television, it is of course, fresh and clean. There isn't any noticeable compression to the picture, it survives its transfer to disc very well.
The sound mix is a pretty straightforward stereo track, but it sounds really good. The music is cooked to the right temperature, and everyone who speaks can be heard clearly.
None. It's too bad we couldn't get some bonus performances, a collection of the greatest hits of Atlantic Records. The bounty within the program itself will have to do.
Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built is a marvelous documentary about one man's relentless pursuit of music and the institution he built, giving artists a place to go where they could pursue their musical vision. Packed with great stories and performances from sixty years of Atlantic recordings, you get a true sense of what Ahmet Ertegun accomplished, and when you hear how good the music is, there's little doubt why he stayed in the game so long. Despite the fact that Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built has no extra features, no supplements to further enjoy this amazing back catalogue of material, I'll still give this DVD the ranking Recommended (and nearly highly so), because the story is that good, that inspiring. If you love music or the story of an underdog who is too tenacious to turn away from his goals appeals to you, then this is the documentary is right up your alley.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.