Johnny Mercer by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood’s great documentary on Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s on Me provides a first-rate overview of pop music in the first half of the 20th century and beyond. A worthy companion is Gene Lees’ excellent biography Portrait of Johnny: The Life of John Herndon Mercer. Lees (himself a widely hailed songwriter, responsible for Anglicizing Jobim’s “Corcovado” and writing lyrics to Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debbie”) digs deep for the details surrounding Mercer’s childhood in Savannah, his rise to fame as a singer and lyricist (as well as an occasional composer), his secret and painful love affair with Judy Garland, and the demons that drove him to become one of the most notorious drunks in Hollywood, a guy who would belittle anyone, ruin any party, and the next day send roses to his victims in a fit of remorse.
The Eastwood-produced film, directed by Bruce Ricker, touches on the gory details of Mercer’s life but concentrates on the music, which encompasses Jazz-Age and Depression ditties like “Jeepers Creepers” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” through his great wartime movie songs like “Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” to his seminal work with Harold Arlen (“Blues in the Night,” “One For My Baby”) and his defining late-career movie themes, including “Laura,” “Moon River,” and “Days of Wine and Roses.”
This film is worth seeing just for the amazing clips Eastwood’s team has turned up, including Mercer’s early film roles and TV appearances on American variety shows I had never even heard of. Musical performances abound, with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire, Sonny Stitt, Duke Ellington, Mel Tormé, and Ray Charles, to name a few. Best of all, Eastwood’s writers nail the history of pop as it evolved before rock, from the domination of Broadway composers to the emergence of midwestern, southern, and western voices such as Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Mercer, and Bing Crosby, who dated Mercer’s wife Ginger, herself a controversial figure in the Mercer story, before Johnny did.
Along the way, there are valuable portraits of other giants, such as the composers Carmichael, Arlen, Harry Warren, and the dean of songwriters, Jerome Kern, with whom Mercer wrote “I‘m Old Fashioned “ and “Dearly Beloved,” among others. Mercer sowed the seeds of his own professional demise by founding Capitol records, championing the career and ensuring the success of Nat King Cole and the resurgent Frank Sinatra, then selling Capitol to EMI, only to see it provide an American home for the Beatles and help push the jazz-inspired sophistication of American music to the back burner—and practically off the cooktop.
Clint Eastwood is no stranger to the jazz community (see Bird, his reverential film on Charlie Parker and his own composing for his films and those of others), and he has expanded his bona fides with this tuneful examination of the most prolific and talented singer-songwriter (when there was no such thing as singer-songwriters) of the classic pop era.