Michael Feinstein - The Sinatra Legacy (2011) is an entertaining and informative concert film, made for PBS, though somewhat misleadingly titled. It's not a "Sinatra's Greatest Hits"-type show, but rather an exploration of Sinatra's influences and how his career as "inarguably" the 20th century's greatest interpreter of American song* in turn influenced others that followed him. Fair enough, but that's an awful lot of ground to cover. Indeed, you could build a long, long series of concerts around Sinatra's mentors and disciples and still only scratch the surface. The packaging on this Blu-ray lists a running time of 86 minutes but that's a bit of a cheat as the actual concert runs just 63 1/2 minutes; the other 22 1/2 minutes consist of supplementary material. No matter. What's there is richly entertaining anyway even if at times it plays like a Cliff Notes version of a daunting, far-reaching subject.
Performer-pianist-archivist Michael Feinstein has steadily gained popularity since the mid-1980s with the release of his CD Pure Gershwin (1987), a by-product of his association with Ira Gershwin and subsequent friendship with Gershwin's next-door-neighbor, Rosemary Clooney. (Another early supporter of Feinstein's was, intriguingly enough, character actor Richard Deacon.) Feinstein's subsequent albums, often focusing on a single songwriter (Irving Berlin, Burton Lane, Jule Styne, etc.) were keystones in a renewed interest in popular song stretching from Tin Pan Alley into the early-1960s and beyond. (Feinstein refers to this era as the "Great American Songbook.") The slicker but more conventional Harry Connick, Jr. came into prominence soon after Feinstein, and quickly became much more popular, though to this reviewer at least Connick, especially early in his career, overtly aped Sinatra and his performance style while Feinstein, though a talented singer in his own right, was more the music anthropologist with a barely contained enthusiasm that was pretty irresistible.
Michael Feinstein - The Sinatra Legacy is a handsome Blu-ray with decent extra features, though like Feinstein's CDs I wish this had extensive liner notes with more background on the songs.
The show is performed at the $118 million Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts, a 1,600-seat concert hall that opened last January, and where Feinstein serves as its artistic director. As with Feinstein's music generally, the arrangements are respectfully period in flavor, with a pleasant, modest string section and three backup singers accompanying the predominant big band sound.
The song list is an intriguing one, with many less-than-obvious choices:
Once in a Lifetime
I Thought About You
Fly Me to the Moon
Put On a Happy Face/A Lot of Livin' to Do
So In Love
There'll Be Some Changes Made
Begin the Beguine
For Once In My Life
Maybe This Time
New York, New York
What's appealing about Feinstein's performing style is that he's at least as much interested in the songwriters and the origins of songs and their styles as he is in the performers that introduced and covered them. Thus, Feinstein's performance of "Fly Me to the Moon" eschews the brassy Sinatra interpretation and instead adapts it as songwriter Bart Howard intended, as a haunting ballad. In this instance, Feinstein is accompanied by a lone electric guitar. Songs pay tribute to songwriters such as Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer, and others.
Not that Sinatra gets shut out. Feinstein, for instance, tells a fascinating, funny story about his first meeting with the great icon, at Chasen's, where Feinstein was hired by the Sinatras to perform at a private party. Mainly though, Feinstein traces Sinatra's roots and influences, on one song for instance connecting the dots backward from Sinatra to Billie Holliday to Ethel Waters.
As a performer, Feinstein is full of energy and passion, and his versatility both technically and in interpreting songs in unconventional ways always impresses. (I prefer his delicate renditions of songs like "Wasn't It Romantic?" and "Angels on Your Pillow" (on other albums) to big showstoppers like the "New York, New York" he does here. There's a nervous, almost uncomfortable synergy between out-of-the-closet Feinstein (who married partner Terrence Flannery in 2008) and the wealthy, white conservative Indianans in the audience. Feinstein jokes about the early-'60s when everybody - "not just gay people" - bought original cast albums, and does a pretty uncanny imitation of Paul Lynde when discussing Bye Bye Birdie, but these evoke what might best be described as polite laughter.
Video & Audio
Shot in high-definition Michael Feinstein - The Sinatra Legacy is up to contemporary high-def television standards, looks fine, and has no video/audio issues that I could notice. The region A disc is 1080i and 1.78:1 full frame, with options for 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Uncompressed PCM Stereo. Alas, no subtitles are included. It would have been great to have these lyrics available onscreen.
Supplements include three self-explanatory featurettes, all in 1080i high-def with uncompressed PCM stereo: "Bonus Track: 'Sway,'" "Journey to the Palladium," and "Palladium Community Video."
A short but typically fine concert by Feinstein celebrating America's rich history of popular song, Michael Feinstein - The Sinatra Legacy is Highly Recommended.
* According to Feinstein. I'd argue there are at least three other contenders, including Bing Crosby, whom he readily acknowledges.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.