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Greatest Ears in Town: Arif Mardin Story
Since the US is a melting pot, it's possible for every member of a nationality or ethnicity to find American heroes who shaped this country in one way or another. Us Turks don't have many famous examples (The less we say about Doctor Oz, the better), but we seem to have cornered the market on music producers who have put a tremendous mark on the popular music of the 20th Century. If you love Led Zeppelin or Ray Charles, you have Turkish wunderproducer Ahmet Ertegun to thank. In fact, Ertegun's importance on Zeppelin was so massive, that the band reunited for a single performance in 2007 in his honor.
And if you enjoy the music of Bette Midler, The Bee Gees, Norah Jones (To be honest, the list is way too long for this review), then Arif Mardin is your guy. A protégée of Ahmet Ertegun during the 50s, Mardin made a thoroughly impressive path for himself as a producer and arranger of some of the biggest pop hits during the latter half of the 20th Century. He started off as a jazz musician who idolized big band music, but when he had his big opportunity to release an album, he found more pleasure in rearranging other musicians' works, rather than working on his own material.
This inspired him to help other artists find the most effective ways to communicate their visions with the listeners, and opened the floodgates to an amazing career full of unforgettable albums and tracks. It's damn near impossible for pretty much anyone to have never heard an Arif Mardin-produced track. Even if you live under a rock in the middle of nowhere, you must have at least heard a couple of notes of The Wind Beneath My Wings echoing in the air.
Co-directed by Arif Mardin's son Joe, The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story is a fairly amateurish, yet refreshingly intimate portrayal of this great producer. The documentary swings back and forth between interviews with artists whose lives were touched by Mardin, to 2006 recording sessions for a conceptual album full of Mardin's jazz compositions from his youth, to be performed by the legendary musicians he worked with along the way. To be honest, the technical aspects of the doc makes it look not much more than a glorified home video. This project obviously didn't have much of a budget or a strong technical crew behind it. The camera work is shaky and sloppy, and the footage is full of moments where the focus goes in and out. The editing is a bit erratic, and is full of cheesy video effects (Seriously, only a star wipe is missing from the iMovie transitions list).
The film's amateur look and feel is a blessing and a curse. Sure, it could have been more engaging to see a more professionally-made doc about this important American icon, but an outside crew wouldn't have been able to capture the warmth and intimacy that exudes from Mardin, his family, his fans, and the artists he has worked with. Since the film is made by Mardin's son, who's been his producing partner for decades, everyone's relaxed and honest when exposing themselves to the camera. This leads to wonderfully personal moments like the story of how Mardin and his wife got together, and Bette Midler lovingly making fun of the man's many quirks, which includes his passion for making the perfect martini.
Since this was a tiny production that didn't seem to have a big budget for high grade DVD authoring, we unfortunately get lots of video noise. There are some shots that are so packed full of aliasing and low-res encoding, that the footage doesn't look much better than a Playstation One full motion video cutscene. Hence, the main reason for seeking out this DVD is not the technical quality of the presentation, but the narrative content.
The LPCM 2.0 track comes to life whenever we get to listen to many wonderful music that Mardin produced. When it comes to hearing the footage from the recording sessions, as well as the interviews, the clarity of the sound practically varies from shot to shot. There are some shots and interviews that might require you to turn on the subtitles in order to hear them. Otherwise, keep your remote handy, as you'll have to keep turning the volume up and down. One neat addition is that the DVD offers Turkish subtitles.
EPK: A five-minute video marketing the film.
Deleted/Extended Scenes: These scenes can't be found under a Deleted Scenes menu, and are listed separately as extras, but they are basically 25 minutes of deleted sequences from the film. Some of it is interesting, like Mardin giving instructions on how to make his favorite Martini.
Commentary by Co-director Joe Mardin: This is a perfect companion to the film, as Mardin gives a lot of information about how and where the interviews took place, as well as where the various vintage photos and footage were found.
Don't expect much in terms of technical prowess from this documentary, but the fact that it's obviously made with love overcomes many of its visual shortcomings. It goes without saying that if you're a fan of Mardin's work, you won't find a more intimate and informational take on the man.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com