Director Bruce Ricker’s film, narrated by jazz pianist Bill Charlap, delivers the usual expected endorsements from the likes of movie historian Leonard Maltin (Mercer is “in the pantheon” among the contributors of the Great American Songbook), but there’s plenty here that hasn’t been covered in years. Perhaps most jaw-dropping is the sheer amount of Mercer music, not just the classics like “Moon River” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” but ditties like “Jeepers Creepers” and “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande,” which will lead some viewers to ask themselves, “I can’t believe he wrote that? And that? And that?”
Georgia peach: The 100th birthday of huckleberry friend Johnny Mercer is celebrated in a new book and Turner Classic Movies documentary. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
The Savannah-born Mercer was also an accomplished singer of his own songs, with a rich, resonant voice, as demonstrated via a generous amount of clips from long-forgotten TV variety shows from the 1950s and 1960s, series like Kraft Music Hall, The Ray Anthony Show and Bell Telephone Hour that are only vaguely replicated these days during PBS pledge drives. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether he borrowed that casual crooning style from Bing Crosby, a frequent Mercer interpreter, or vice versa. And the cat could wail, notably in Mercer’s version of “Jamboree Jones” from a 1956 telecast of The Rosemary Clooney Show.
Mercer’s founding of Capitol Records during World War II is recalled, a label that broke racial boundaries by signing Nat King Cole, along with more personal details such as his more-than-friends relationship with Judy Garland (Mercer’s wife Ginger had to intervene) that resulted in some of his best melancholy-infused ballads, as well as his occasional missteps as a mean drunk. Yet Ricker is adept at maintaining that anyone can interpret a Mercer number. There’s a cute bit when daddy Clint instructs his daughter, braces-wearing teen Morgan, on the gifts of phrasing (“It’s like telling a story”) as the kid launches into “This Time the Dream’s on Me.” In contrast, there are several different versions of “That Old Black Magic” in the movie, the funniest being Keely Smith and Louis Prima’s 1959 hit on a Dinah Shore show, with a mugging Prima changing a key lyric to “You’re the blubber I have waited for.” At the very least, this factoid-packed documentary offers a decade-by-decade breakdown of Tony Bennett’s many hairstyles, which number almost as many as Joe Nicoletti.
The Dream’s On Me is also timed to coincide with the release of The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (Alfred A. Knopf; $65; hardcover, 462 pages), a staggeringly hefty tome edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Eric Davis and Miles Kreuger. More than 1,200 of his lyrics from the stage, screen and more are presented, with an assortment of old photos and sheet music reproductions, plus lyrics from the Christmas cards that he sent out to close friends.
Turner Classic Movies airs Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 8 p.m. and midnight, as part of a November salute to Mercer’s movie contributions on Wednesday nights. Also on Nov. 4 will be the musicals The Fleet’s In (10 p.m.), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (2 a.m.) and Blues in the Night (3:45 a.m.). The Nov. 11 lineup features Hollywood Hotel (8 p.m.), Garden of the Moon (10 p.m.), Mercer’s acting turn in 1935’s Old Man Rhythm (11:45 p.m.), which he described as “a B-movie, or an E-flat movie, Second Chorus (1:15 a.m.), Ready, Willng and Able (2:45 a.m.) and Hard to Get (4:30 a.m.), while Nov. 18 checks in with a daylong slate that includes You’ll Find Out (6 a.m.), Navy Blues (8 a.m.), Top Banana (10 a.m.), You Can’t Run Away From It (noon), Autumn Leaves (2 p.m.), The Americanization of Emily (4 p.m.), a 6 p.m. rebroadcast of The Dream’s On Me plus The Harvey Girls (8 p.m.), Here Comes the Groom (10 p.m.), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (midnight), Days of Wine and Roses (2 a.m.) and Going Places (4 a.m.). The Mercer movie marathons wrap on Nov. 25 with Road House (8 p.m.), Macao (10 p.m.), Li’l Abner (11:30 p.m.), The Belle of New York (1:30 a.m.), and The Sky’s the Limit (3 a.m.).