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Clint Eastwood Presents Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me

Samuel Chell By

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Johnny Mercer
Clint Eastwood Presents Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me

Film director Clint Eastwood's love of jazz and American popular song is far from a secret, especially following his feature-length biopic about alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (Bird, 1988), during which the ever restless Eastwood got the idea to produce a feature-length film about pianist Thelonious Monk, released somewhat later during the same year as Straight No Chaser. Hence, it should surprise few that Eastwood will introduce viewers to a month-long 100th birthday celebration of American lyricist Johnny Mercer on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), beginning with Eastwood Presents Johnny Mercer: The Dream's On Me, which will be telecast in the U.S. on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 with a repeat on Wednesday, November 18. Throughout the month of November, when Mercer would have been 100, Wednesdays on TCM will be devoted to classic Hollywood films with lyrics penned and, in some instances, performed by Mercer, who not only wrote but sang more hit songs than virtually any other American songwriter.

The Eastwood opener is admittedly a "teaser," a mosaic of familiar songs and faces that nevertheless succeeds in giving viewers, regardless of their degree of familiarity with Mercer, plenty of motivation to delve into his considerable body of work. (The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, published by Knopf earlier in 2009, must surely rank among the thickest, heaviest tomes ever produced.) While Mercer's is a familiar voice and face to anyone who remembers the popular music of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as his later work with singers Bobby Darin, Andy Williams and Barry Manilow (who set his elegiac lyric "When October Goes" to music before releasing a recorded performance posthumously), it comes as a surprise to even many of his steadfast admirers to learn that it was Mercer who founded Capitol records, which would go on to become one of the several most important recording companies of the latter half of the 20th century.

But above all, Mercer was a man of words. And more than that he possessed an ear for the vernacular that was capable of transforming song lyrics into poetry. Of all the talking heads in the movie, no one speaks words more from the heart than Tony Bennett: "As far as I'm concerned, Johnny Mercer is American literature." Unlike the sophisticated and cosmopolitan Cole Porter or the ironical, complex Lorenz Hart, Mercer was a regional writer, practically cut out of the same cloth as Southern authors like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Harper Lee and James Dickey, his subjects as much about the sights and sounds of nature as the many faces of romantic love. Bing Crosby is heard stating that Mercer was thought of in the business as the "Huck Finn of American popular music" and as a "good ol' Southern boy."

But the key to Johnny Mercer's art was, more than all else, his love of Southern black culture. Born into a wealthy family, he waived college in favor of exploring the black neighborhoods of his native Savannah, combing stores for the "race records" of the time, and at one point receiving a citation from a black organization that had never met him personally as "our favorite colored singer." Although the Eastwood film attempts to distribute the influences more evenly, pointing out that early on he discovered the witty word play of W. S. Gilbert, the attentive listener or reader of Mercer's lyrics is soon apt to nod in agreement with the words of writer Wilfrid Sheed: "For all his adaptability, there was a black-jazz base in everything Mercer wrote" (The House That George Built, Random House, 2007).

As mentioned above, the clips of Mercer, including his appearances with trumpeter Louis Armstrong and singer/pianists Nat King Cole and, above all, Ray Charles, (Mercer practically changes character when it's his turn to join the duet), are all very brief. Rarely is a song featured for more than eight measures before it fades into the background, yielding to the narration of pianist Bill Charlap or another clip. But the cumulative effect of so many short clips featuring Mercer himself leaves a lasting, memorable impression, practically daring the viewer not to look more deeply into the life and work of one of the century's indisputable geniuses where the dovetailing of music and words is concerned.

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