On August 3, 2006, Tony Bennett turned 80 years-old. It was a milestone moment both for the artist, and for popular music as well. I know it's a cliche, but they just don't make 'em like Bennett anymore. A consummate showman, the guy did it all -- sing as well as entertain, combining elements of pop, jazz, dance, musical theater and classic vaudeville. His list of accomplishments is so long and his collaborators so varied that his resume alone could easily fill the halls of the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame. Frank Sinatra didn't call this guy "the greatest singer ever" for nuthin'.
To celebrate Bennett's birthday and further cement his legacy, NBC produced a one-of-a-kind television special in late 2006, called 'An American Classic.' It was a true rarity for network TV these days, reminiscent of the variety shows and musical revues more common to the medium in the '60s and '70s. There are biographical sequences on Bennett's rise to stardom and "surprise" tributes from various celebrities (including Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro and John Travolta), which bridge ten different stand-alone duets with top musical artists. Interspersed throughout are several dance numbers and a few comedy bits (which work surprisingly well).
Of course, 'An American Classic' is far better produced than most of those cheesy old '70s specials. Director Rob Marshall (the man who brought Oscar-winning 'Chicago' to the big screen) is behind the camera, so you know the pacing, choreography, costumes and visual pizzazz are all top-flight. And the guest list is incredible. Highlights are John Legend (see my review of his recent Blu-ray release 'Live at the House of Blues' for an unqualified rave) doing "Sing You Sinners," the lively "Steppin' Out with My Baby" with Christina Aguilera, a surprisingly sexy "Just in Time" by Michael Buble, and La Streisand herself, who kicks off the show with a sweet "Smile."
If I have any reservations about 'An American Classic' they would be that the mini-movie format is rather episodic, and that the special itself is somewhat short at only 42 minutes long (it was only an hour-long TV special, minus the commercials as presented here. And diehard Bennett fans may be a bit disappointed that the man himself is forced to share most of his screen time with so many other luminaries. But all is forgiven by the time he finally gets the spotlight all to himself, alone on an empty stage, for the closer "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." 'An American Classic' is the kind of musical tour de force sadly absent from the major networks these days.
The track list for 'An American Classic' is: 01. "Smile," Barbra Streisand / 02. "Sing You Sinners," John Legend / 03. "Because Of You," k.d. lang and Chris Botti / 04. "The Best Is Yet To Come," Diana Krall / 05. "The Shadow Of Your Smile," Juanes / 06. "Rags To Riches," Elton John / 07. "Just In Time," Michael Buble / 08. "For Once In My Life," Stevie Wonder / 09. "Steppin' Out With My Baby," Christina Aguilera / 10. "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," Tony Bennett
Shot for television largely on HD video (only some of the interspersed anecdotal bits in black & white and other archival footage appears to have been taken from film sources), 'Tony Bennett: An American Classic' is presented here in 1080i/MPEG-2 video, and it's another very fine presentation from Sony BMG.
I was surprised at how well-produced 'An American Classic' was. The sets, costumes, lighting and camera moves -- it's all really quite lavish. Colors are quite wonderful, with a lush and vivid look that never bleeds or smears. Contrast is generally excellent, with the strong visual style offering a bright look that reveals great detail. Faces (particularly in close-up) boast that you-are-there look so typical of shot-on-HD material, which is all the better to inspect the wonderful costume design. The only drawback is some obvious noise in dark areas of the picture. Some of the higher-key lighting suffers in the fall-off to black, which is a tad bit steep. But no matter -- 'An American Classic' looks fabulous.
With such great video, the audio has a lot to live up to, but it does so ably. 'An American Classic' sounds superb, with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track that easily matches the standards of other Sony BMG Blu-ray releases, such as 'John Legend Live at the House of Blues' and 'Destiny's Child: Live in Atlanta.'
'An American Classic' is a bit unique in that it is a mix of musical performances in front of a live studio audience and pre-recorded material. From an aural perspective, the result is surprisingly cohesive. Nothing here appears to have been rushed, and I wouldn't be surprised if the live numbers where shot more than once. And if there are overdubs, the seams don't show. The depth and realism to the music reproduction is excellent, with the entire frequency range warm and spacious. Low bass is supple and tight, and though Tony Bennett is hardly a "heavy" act, there is a good deal of kick to these performances.
Surround envelopment is minimal, however. It is improved a bit during the live audience segments, but even then the rears are reserved primarily for crowd noise. The mix is mainly front and center, though separation is excellent. The center channel is also perfectly balanced, so vocals are always prominent and distinct in the mix. Tony doesn't need a bunch of bells and whistles -- he shines all by himself.
The standard-def DVD didn't include any extras, so there are none to carry over to this Blu-ray release. However, there is some high-def exclusive content, so read on...
Tony Bennett is an artist that needs no introduction, and 'An American Classic' is a fitting tribute, expertly directed by Rob Marshall. Too bad it's only 42 minutes long! As for this Blu-ray release, it is another fine effort from Sony BMG. The video, audio and supplements are all first-rate. A hearty recommendation.