Stories are legion about what Barry Manilow is really like to the hoi polloi--you know, contracts that stipulate no eye contact backstage, bottled water always available at a decreed temperature, things like that. What emerges from this 5 DVD set of his early television specials is instead an ingratiating and for the most part natural and appealing presence who may not be the greatest singer/songwriter of all time, but who knows his strengths and plays to them consistently, creating a volume of work that is melodic, harmonically sophisticated (at least for "pop music"), lyrically focused and always winningly performed. As the old adage about Elvis stated, millions of fans can't be wrong.
The set consists of:
"The First Barry Manilow Special," an Emmy award winning introduction to Barry from 1977 which is at first glance a somewhat hilarious time capsule from an era of shag haircuts, spangled disco jumpsuits, and platform shoes (and that's just Barry, folks). There's a certain innocence and exuberance, almost a disbelief at his star status, that augments this premiere outing and becomes noticeably less apparent as his specials continue through the ensuing decade. The show is built around Manilow's memories, starting with his earliest recollections of his Grandfather taking him to one of those "record yourself" booths, where Barry steadfastly refused to sing despite his Grandad's encouragement. He also revisits his days as a lounge pianist, complete with fake palm and hanging swordfish. Guest star Penny Marshall drops by for a strangely "kitchen sink"-esque skit about a bar pianist (Manilow) and waitress (Marshall), where Manilow ends up "writing" "Could It Be Magic" (with nary a nod to Chopin, from whom the melody is cribbed). There's also a nascent longform video in the location shooting accompanying "New York City Rhythm," as well as the hits from Manilow's first year of charting, "Mandy," "It's a Miracle" and "I Write the Songs." But the highlight of the concert is probably his "Very Strange Medley," consisting of pop reworkings of the jingles he wrote for commercials before becoming famous, including products such as KFC, State Farm, Stridex, Band-Aid, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and McDonalds.
"The Second Barry Manilow Special," from one year later (1978), starts out promisingly with a very funny skit featuring Manilow's mother bending the ear of a taxi driver about her newly famous son. The show then moves to Hollywood's Pantages theater, where Manilow professes that he wants to do a more "personal" special this time, and so is going to perform only for the camera (meaning the home audience), not rabid, screaming fans. "Daybreak" is an inviting number, enhanced by some cute animation, but marred by Manilow's shtick, some of it uncomfortable, as when he kiddingly (we hope, anyway) hits on a senior citizen extra. The highlight of this outing is no doubt the presence of Ray Charles, who shows that Manilow's songwriting can indeed be inhabited with a good dose of soul, as Ray performs a stellar "One of These Days" before joining Manilow in a two piano version of "It's a Miracle," set to a Motown arrangement. There's also a campy (could it be otherwise?) version of "Copacabana" with Manilow surrounded by Carmen Miranda wannabe's, all ensconced with various foodstuffs on their heads. This year's hits are also visited in a de rigeur appended concert segment (with the aforementioned rabid, screaming fans in full voice), including "Looks Like We Made It." It's interesting to contrast his unaffected entrance before his audience in the first special with this one, where he rises on a hydraulic lift from the orchestra pit.
There's no better metaphor for the change in Manilow's status by the time the "3rd Barry Manilow Special" aired in 1979 than to note that his entrance this time (after a forced and unfunny skit about him driving behind the Hollywood sign) is almost Messianic--a bright, sunshine orange backlit scrim highlights him as he walks, silhouetted, with his arms outstretched in an almost Nixonian pose, 20 feet or so above the stage. Obviously, Manilow had arrived as showbiz royalty by this time, and he was just as obviously aware of it. He quickly goes on to redeem himself, however, with some nice self-deprecating interplay with the audience, where he consents to kiss a row of about-to-faint female fans. Once again, Manilow had a bevy of new hits to promote, including "Weekend in New England." There's also a cute fantasy sequence with Manilow imagining himself in a Hollywood musical performing "I Write the Songs," which undergoes a number of arrangements, including yet another Carmen Miranda knockoff, as well as an hommage to the then-hot A Chorus Line. Guest star John Denver joins Manilow in a fun Everly Brothers medley and also engages in a little (again forced) banter about being the butt of critical analysis (oh-oh). Manilow also revisits "Copacabana" (thankfully without the fruit-heads), which had in the interim become one of his biggest hits.
1980's "One Voice" is a video shrine to Manilow as both a hitmaker (the show opens with an overblown orchestral overture recounting his many chart successes) and producer, courtesy of guest star Dionne Warwick, who was experiencing a career boost that year with a Manilow produced album. The audience is smaller this time (by design, one assumes), lending the proceedings a more intimate air. Manilow groups his songs this time by emotion, such as "love when it's good" and "separation." The special is certainly an artifact from another time, with its propulsive rhythms from the end of the disco era, Manilow's leather pants, and, most alarmingly, Warwick's cigarette during a "rehearsal" segment that nonetheless features a great "Déjà Vu," and a somewhat less wonderful "I Know I'll Never Love This Way Again." The show closes with the title anthem, enhanced by an sweet choir consisting of teens (thereby negating the title). There may be some unintended humor for the more jaded viewer when Manilow, in introducing the song, states he tries to avoid "obviously corny" material.
There's a virtual decade long gap before 1988's "Big Fun on Swing Street," but it was well worth the wait and remains the best all around special of this set. Manilow's love of the 40s is featured in all the previous specials, either in passing comments or full blown production numbers, but here he spends the entire time focused on the music of the big bands and jazz singers. Blending stars of (relatively speaking) yore (Phyllis Hyman, Carmen McCrae and Gerry Mulligan) with proponents of the then-current neo-Swing movement (Kid Creole and the Coconuts), as well as contemporary jazz stars (Diane Schuur and Stanley Clarke, who do a beautiful "Summertime"), the show segues effortlessly between Manilow's own contemporary takes on swing ("Big Fun") to classic songs from the actual era ("Stardust"). The special is also mercifully free of the hammy humor that sometimes hampers the previous efforts.
Overview: These five specials showcase Manilow's affable, easy-going manner with both patter and musical material. They all remain historical artifacts to a certain degree, but there's also an undeniable timelessness to a lot of Manilow's material, though it does tend toward "obviously corny," despite his protestations otherwise.