You've probably never heard of Arif Mardin, but chances are you've 'heard' him. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. The celebrated producer and arranger for Atlantic Records may not be a certified household name, but you've definitely felt his aural branding on such superstar acts as The Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin, The Rascals, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Hall & Oates, and hundreds of others. As a young boy in his native Turkey, Mardin wanted to be part of the music world. He excelled at jazz, got a scholarship to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston (thanks to lifelong friend Quincy Jones) and eventually fell into the laps of Atlantic executives Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun. Along with seasoned studio vet Jerry Wexler, Mardin made musical history, providing the backdrop for a string of seminal hit songs. On his own, he would create another collection of chart-toppers, eventually becoming one of the most successful mainstream producers of all time. In 2006, Mardin began working on a "solo" album, made up mostly of songs he composed sung by individuals he loved working with. His son decided to make a movie of the experience. Little did he know that it would be his father's final work.
Indeed, Mardin died of pancreatic cancer that same year, leaving his proposed magnum opus more or less finished. As with a similarly styled project that The Beatles' George Martin did back in 1998 entitled In My Life, the illustrious industry legend called in a few favors and came up with a who's who of collaborators. Over the course of this otherwise engaging career overview, we see Ms. Franklin, Ms. Midler, Jewel, Norah Jones (who Mardin guided to Grammy glory in 2002) as well as Barry Gibb, Daryl Hall, and other special guests. Many perform music written by the producer yet never committed to tape until now. Some, like Midler, decided against Mardin's track and come up with their own (thus, the title of the documentary). Through it all, director Joe Mardin makes a case for his father's raw talent, the Ertegun's guile in bringing him on, and his lasting power and influence behind the knobs. This material is far more interesting than the various studio sessions, though we do get glimpses of how Mardin himself functioned (one of his primary rules while recording - always order in something good to eat).
Along the way there are some amazing moments. Chaka Khan, for example, explains how much she HATED HATED HATED the opening for his smash hit "I Feel For You." Aretha Franklin marvels at her look (especially her hair) on a series of old album covers. Gibb and his later brother Robin explain how Mardin managed the Bee Gees iconic falsetto sound, as well as noting its first appearance on any of their records (the answer: "Nights on Broadway") and Quincy Jones remembers meeting the man while on a world tour with bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Equally telling are the times Mardin missed out (he couldn't produce the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack because Atlantic wouldn't loan him out to a competing label) and the overall commentary from those he worked with. While clearly not meant as a warts and all overview, The Greatest Ears in Town makes the case for Mardin's own self-professed "lack of ego." He describes his job simply - the musicians create the canvas, he helps them frame it and put it on display. About the only bad thing we hear is that Mardin missed a lot of meals with his family. His wife recalls getting messages from the studio claiming he would be home "in about 15 minutes." He would walk in the door five hours later.
Even in the final months of his life, Mardin is portrayed as vibrant, engaged, and ready to tackle any challenge. His in-studio critiques run the gamut from "good" to "good - let's try it again" and he always seems to bring out the best in those who you imagine wouldn't be up to the task (we're looking at you, Jewel). While it would be nice to hear more from Mardin's early years (the images of the man working in the studio during the '60s are stellar fashion flashbacks) and his time in Turkey, but that's not really the movie's main motive. Similar in set-up to Metallica's Some Kind of Monster, the man's son started out making a Behind the Scenes sneak peek at an album in the works and ended up with much, much more. Today, the producer is being replaced by gadgets and gizmos, Auto-Tune and the simplicity of a computer program. Arif Mardin remains one of the stalwarts of the old school of music making, and this delightful documentary proves why.