From her teenage years dancing in nightclubs (with her mother as chaperone) to the devastating diagnosis of MS in the mid-'80s, Lola Falana was, and remains, a superstar. She was a Broadway regular, a nightclub personality, the Queen of Las Vegas, and a '70s TV institution - and that doesn't even begin to outline her accomplishments. Discovered by Sammy Davis Jr. while performing on a New York stage, she quickly became a Great White Way regular, an Italian movie star (?!?), and a TV fixture. Guest starring on every talk show this side of Johnny Carson, she was a true pop culture icon. So it's no surprise that the networks would come calling, offering her a chance to star in her own weekly series. Fortunately, Ms. Falana opted out of the daily grind, believing her talents would be better served by a series of specials (her previous uncomfortable experience working on the Summer replacement series Comin' at Cha sealed the deal). So from January to March of 1976, she left the comfortable confines of Sin City's MGM Grand to star opposite some of ABC's current talent pool for The Lola Falana Show. Now available again on DVD, we can clearly see what made the seductive songstress so popular...as well as why her tenure on weekly TV was so limited.
A standard 47 minute installment of The Lola Falana Show usually starts out with a blackout- a small skit that introduces the guest stars while giving our hostess a chance to shine. Then there is a song (something off the current soul charts or a classic bit of diva-dom like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). Ms. Falana will offer a mostly joke-free monologue, bringing on the other cast members to handle the humor. Then we'd get some sketches, the most familiar being Falana as a small inner city girl interacting with the people she meets along her street. Unannounced guests would also turn up, including the likes of Bill Cosby and Dinah Shore. Toss in more singing, more dancing, some tepid topical humor, and a whole lot of dated elements and you have Ms. Falana at her finest. The four specials represented here contain the following fixtures of Me Decade entertainment. They include:
Episode 1: Hal Linden and Muhammad Ali
Episode 2: Billy Dee Williams and Gabe Kaplan
Episode 3: Redd Foxx and Dick Van Dyke
Episode 4: Art Carney and Dennis Weaver
The Lola Falana Show proves it, conclusively: the TV variety hour is dead and technology killed it - specifically, the remote control and the 500 channel choices of cable. You see, back in the day (which clearly references a generation thrice removed from the current media crop), audiences of the Big Three broadcast networks knew that their entertainment choices were limited. Once a favorite Prime Time spot was chose - ABC, CBS, or NBC - the night's selections had more or less been made. So people really liked to have a little spice between their sitcoms and solid small screen dramas - and entertainers like Falana foot the bill nicely. They could sing. They could dance. They could tell a joke if need be. And perhaps most importantly, they could command the attention of a group already glued to their own personal glass teat. They didn't have to use gimmicks or fancy production value. Just cue up the band, give them a microphone, and watch them earn their keep. When viewed within that context, when seen as the "channel surfing" option of a limited resource demographic, its popularity is plausible, as is its implied demise.
You see, when viewed in light of ever-changing talent pools, acumen's current lack of importance, and a skewed view of what best serves the contemporary TV viewer, someone like Lola Falana doesn't stand a chance today. The specials are slow, deliberate in pacing and what it wants to get across. Even with a live studio audience clapping along with its star's sensational vocals, the laugh track mentality toward comedy is alive and well. The sketches are uneven at best, a couple walking the fine line between humor and heartless stereotyping, and there is no denying that some people (Hal Linden, Dick Van Dyke) were better built for this format than other famous faces (Muhammad Ali). Even Ms. Falana is slightly limited, her entire persona better constructed for belting out the ballads and cutting a rug than realizing a fully rounded character. She is not without her charms, and carries the mid '70s style of sex appeal (read: athletic build with limited curves and short cropped pixie hairdo) rather well. She's the very definition of a tour de force, the female equivalent of the 'all around entertainer' reputation that brought her to prominence in the first place.
As you can see by the list of costars featured, Ms. Falana strives to be true to her roots while reaching out across racial boundaries. The material is never geared toward one particular populace or another, though it is safe to say that the vast majority of the wit is oriented toward the White demographic. And let's face it - most of the sketches just suck. The standard Sonny and Cher Show crew of comedic voices (including Murray Langston and Ted Zeigler) do their over the top mugging best to bring energy and fun to what is some rather forced and frequently unfunny material. A good example of this approach turns up in the Williams/Kaplan installment. First, we get a weird conversation with a Chinese diplomat (played by Pat Morita) who changes between mock Mandarin and cool cat English for no discernible reason. Then Mr. Kotter himself shows up to act like a humor coach, yelling at the "team" for blowing punchlines and coming up with crappy skits. It's enough to make you groan in disbelief. Thankfully, Ms. Falana is never far behind, ready to wow us with her varying vocal abilities. She can really sell a song, and it's that ability that ultimately saves these specials. Without our star, we'd be lost - both artistically and entertainment-wise.
As you expect, the 1.33:1 full screen image is littered with issues that will only anger the digital purist. The new video transfer removes almost all problems of flaring and bleeding, but the colors are a little faded and the camera work can be a bit boring. Details are lost in a generally soft picture and the overall feeling is old and antiquated. The show still looks great, but you'll never confuse this version for something crafted in the last few years.
Sadly, the sound quality here leaves a lot to be desired. The Dolby Digital Mono mix, tinny and rather flat, definitely doesn't help come time for the shows' many musical moments. Sure, the dialogue is easily discernible, but the ever-present fake laughter employed to "bump up" the perceived humor of certain segments typically drowns out anything else.
Presented on two discs, the added content here is sparse and incomplete. The Falana biography is basic and reads more like a PR rep's interpretation of her life. The second DVD has a stills gallery. That's all - unless you look a little more deeply. Then, as part of the Redd Foxx/Dick Van Dyke episode, you'll find a commentary track from author Nelson George. Joined by a member of the DVD production staff, our scholar offers some very interesting and erudite opinions about why Ms. Falana was successful, her overall abilities, and the network's challenge in showcasing her properly. It makes for an interesting listen. Too bad Mr. George is only available for one episode. It would be interesting to hear him dish on Bill Cosby's bad-ass pimp impersonation during another installment.
All pangs of nostalgia aside, The Lola Falana Show remains an archival curiosity, and little more. It's entertaining at times, but mostly in a jaw-dropping, 'did we ever think that was funny' kind of way. Similarly, this is not the best showcase of a singing Billy Dee Williams (yes, he believes he can croon) or a restricted Redd Foxx. In the end, The Lola Falana Show is still a Recommended DVD experience, if only because it offers a glimpse into what went into a TV production circa 35 years ago. Sure, the tempo is '70s slow and the costume design a tad flamboyant (blame omnipresent TV tailor Bob Mackie for that), but there is no denying that it festoons a true multi-talented powerhouse. There are few performers like Ms. Falana today, artists able to hold their own in both the artistic and popularity polls. It's a shame that illness caused her to reconsider her career arc (though her current charitable choices cannot be argued). For a while, Lola Falana was an unstoppable force in entertainment. Her four ABC specials here easily illustrate why.