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Midnight Special, The
Premiering on NBC on August 19, 1972 literally as a special, Burt Sugarman's The Midnight Special was essentially a variety show that ran from 1972 through May 1st, 1981. Like Saturday Night Live the series didn't have a regular host but instead used a different celebrity host each week (though there's an exception, for a period lasting from 1975 until 1976 Helen Reddy was the regular host). It also mixed up live musical performances and comedy bits, but what most will remember about this series is the music. Though some of the later era episodes did feature some lip-synching, all the early stuff was performed live on the air and because of this the series left behind a pretty interesting musical legacy. The late, great Wolfman Jack was the series' announcer, and for some of us that's reason enough to want to check this stuff out!
The emphasis here, musically speaking, was pop music. You're not going to see a lot of avant garde stuff here, though David Bowie appearing (for the last time) as Ziggy Stardust probably raised a few eyebrows when it aired (sadly that's not included here) a did Alice Cooper (also not included here). For the most part though, this is pop music/top 40 hit type of stuff, which is fine because quite a bit of this material still holds up and even the stuff that has aged can still be pretty fun to watch. Previously Time Life released a fairly massive eleven DVD collection encompassing as much of the show's run as they could get the rights to. This new three disc set is basically a bunch of the material from that set regurgitated into a scaled down, cheaper release. As such, there's a lot missing here, but what has been included is fun.
Time Life, after releasing a larger boxed set a few years ago, has put together a new three disc reissue that acts as a sort of ‘greatest hits' for the series. Spread across the three discs in this set are the following musical performances:
1/25/80: Barry Manilow "Mandy" / Jim Croce "Operator" / Barry Manilow "It's A Miracle"
12/3/76: Wild Cherry "Play the Funky Music" / Elvin Bishop "Fooled Around And Fell In Love" / Rick Dees "Disco Duck" / Bay City Rollers "Saturday Night"
4/22/77: Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, Etta James, George Benson and Dr. John "Moondance" / Etta James & Dr. John "I'd Rather Go Blind" / Carlos Santana & George Benson "Breezin"
1/28/77: Linda Ronstadt "You're No Good" / Earth, Wind & Fire "Shining Star" / Aretha Franklin, "Something He Can Feel"
Seeing a young Manilow do his thing here is pretty amusing, if for no other reason than the camera has trouble not blinding the viewer from the reflections of the colored lights in the sequins on his shirt! Wild Cherry's performance is as over the top, with those ‘funky white boys' doing their thing while two black guys spin saxophones over their heads in the background. Rick Dees' performance of "Disco Duck" is just as dopey as you'd expect it while seeing Santana and Benson noodle on guitar together is nothing short of cool. Aretha Franklin is as fun to watch here as ever, but the real star of the first disc? Earth, Wind And Fire. They absolutely give 110% here and are a complete blast to watch even if you're not into their disco sounds. It's just a really killer performance.
Disc One also includes a few bonus songs:
Michael Murphey "Wildfire" / Seals & Crofts With Carolyn Willis "Get Closer"/ REO Speedwagon "Keep On Loving You" / Charlie Daniels Band "The Devil Went Down To Georgia"
2/9/73: Steely Dan "Do It Again" / Spinners "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love" / Albert Hammond "It Never Rains In Southern California" / Spinners "I'll Be Around" / Steely Dan "Reeling In The Years"
5/13/77: Glen Campbell "Southern Nights" / Natalie Cole "I've Got Love On My Mind" / Mary MacGregor "Torn Between Two Lovers" / Stephen Bishop "On And On" / Heart "Crazy On You"
9/29/78: Dolly Parton "Jolene" / Frankie Valli "Grease" / Yvonne Elliman "If I Can't Have You" / Dolly Parton "I Will Always Love You"
If disc one is heavier on disco and funk, then disc two brings in the folksy stuff and the country stuff. And that's not a bad thing. Steely Dan provide two decent tracks here but it's the Dolly Parton tracks that are the most memorable of the lot. She looks and sounds fantastic. Glen Campbell, and say what you will about him, also does a fine job. The Heart performance is also pretty solid and hands down the heaviest thing included in this set.
Disc Two also includes a few bonus songs:
Donna Summer "Love to Love You Baby" / Gloria Gaynor "I Will Survive" / Christopher Cross "Sailing"
The contents of the third disc in the set are a selection of comedy bits with Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Freddie Prinze, David Steinberg, Flip Wilson, David Brenner, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Gabe Kaplan, Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers, Jimmie Walker, Robert Klein and Andy Kaufman. These are pretty much all stand up bits and for the most part they're funny, if sometimes a bit dated. Billy Crystal's piece about playing the standup circuit at college campuses is definitely a product of its time while George Carlin's piece about the oddities of specific words in the English language has aged fairly well (and had he not passed away could have easily been added onto and kept quite current).
This series broke new ground not just for bringing live music to a TV audience but for helping to usher in the era of late night television. The original special was intended by NBC to be a one-time thing but the program did well enough that NBC added it to their line up after Johnny Carson signed off for the night. It's easy to see why it was popular as it gave audiences of the time a nice mix of pop culture, comedy and general overall wackiness.The DVD:
The Midnight Special arrives on DVD in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio, just as it was broadcast. Given that these were recorded on video tape they look about as good as they probably can on DVD. Detail is soft but never distractingly so. This looks like a TV show from the late seventies/early eighties probably should look like, given the age of the material and origins of the source material. Colors look alright, black levels are okay but a slight bit grey while the picture is free of any obvious compression issues.Sound:
The only audio option for the disc is an English Dolby Digital Mono track. Again, this material is fine for what it is but understandably limited by the source material. Dialogue is clean, clear and well balanced and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion. The music, likely the reason most will be interested in this release, has decent enough range and presence and again, it sounds pretty good.Extras:
The extras on the disc includes a few bonus interviews. George Benson, David Steinberg and series' creator Burt Sugarman each spend a few minutes on camera talking about their experiences working on the show. Sugarman also contributes some liner notes to an insert booklet that also contains the contents of each of the three discs in the set. Menus and episode/chapter selection are also included on each one of the DVDs that are housed in the standard DVD keepcase sized packaging.Final Thoughts:
Revisiting The Midnight Special by way of this three disc set proves to be a lot of fun. While this is really only a taste test of the pretty amazing array of talent that was assembled for the sure during its lengthy run, this is a good way to get your feet wet. The content is enjoyable and the presentation is about as good as it can realistically get. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.