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book review—Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire And Jazz

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
August 4, 2011 4:30 AM
5 Comments
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by Todd Decker (University of California Press)

So much has been written about the incomparable Fred Astaire, one might properly wonder what is left to say. In this scholarly book, music professor Decker answers that question with cogent analyses of Astaire’s work and, just as important, draws on primary source materials to better understand how many of his most inventive dance numbers for film and television came about.

By scouring RKO, MGM and Paramount production files, as well as the papers of such collaborators as director Mark Sandrich, lyricist Johnny Mercer, songwriter Irving Berlin, and MGM’s musical jack-of-all-trades Roger Edens, among others, Decker is able to provide a valuable blueprint of how Astaire built many of his—

—greatest sequences. (When a new song written by Berlin or Cole Porter didn’t give him what he felt he needed, he called on his rehearsal pianist or a studio staff arranger to extend it or write entirely new music to suit his purposes. There are some revealing examples cited.)

Decker also illustrates in detail how Astaire enjoyed an autonomy almost unheard-of in Hollywood’s golden age. Everyone bent to his will so that he was the “auteur” of almost every number he performed. As we see, he was inspired by jazz, especially as played by black musicians of the period. At a time when it was difficult to integrate such numbers on camera he found subtle (or as Decker indicates, “coded”) ways to achieve the effect he wanted, as in the engine room number in Shall We Dance.

Some of the text may be too academic for certain readers. I skipped over some of the more detailed song/dance breakdowns, but much of it is not only readable but compelling, especially if you happen to love jazz. Decker may be the first Astaire chronicler to quote Down Beat magazine and other jazz sources, especially in describing the contribution of studio musicians (and occasional outsiders) to the soundtracks of the Astaire films.

My only quibble is the author’s survey of Hollywood’s other dancing leading men. I question the inclusion of George Raft, and bemoan the omission of Dan Dailey, who belongs on the rather short list of Astaire’s compatriots.

With so much original research and observation, Music Makes Me is a worthy addition to the books that have been inspired by the genius of Fred Astaire.

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5 Comments

  • Ps Elwood | August 15, 2011 11:40 AMReply

    In reply to the comment directly below this by 'JN Brett':

    The pomposity in your comment is so overwhelming that I feel no choice but to reply and I personally love Fred Astaire. The song 'Music Makes Me' is Ginger's song, and while he danced to the music, it isn't any less her song on account of the fact that she sings it.

    Secondly, Astaire was not the first to sing it afterward, nor the first to record it and he certainly hasn't been the last to do either of the two. Any 'revelation' that you get from Fred's 'phrasing' is merely a consequence of the original intention of the song's writer, which (shocking) wasn't Fred. (And Fred's version, by the way, doesn't make the song any more or less 'ordinary' than any other version of it.)

    That being said, I too find it a bit funny of a title, but have no problem with it, only you and your pretentious defense of it.

  • JN Brett | August 9, 2011 12:38 PMReply

    I understand that you think the title is funny because you associate the song with Ginger Rogers. But, it's extremely appropriate. Yes, Ginger Rogers sings the song in the movie, but Astaire does his first extended solo dance to the music. It is as much "his" music as hers. Furthermore, his recording of the song is a revelation. What he does with the phrasing really brings it out of the ordinary. The title of the song neatly encapsulates the theme of the book-that it was jazz that inspired and at times forced Astaire to dance. And when he sings the song you understand what music means to him

  • Michael Campbell | August 5, 2011 4:31 AMReply

    In reference to the comment above regarding Astaire's appearahce on the Oscar Levant Show; yes ideed, Astaire is immensely entertaining and at home with Levant; he is loose, charmingm, and almost gossipy. It is a delight. Astaire's television specials with Joe Williams and Count Basie, as well as his own movie appearances playing with drums, attest to his jazz sensitivity. Put it tghis way: He's never square.

  • evan jeffrey williams | August 5, 2011 1:54 AMReply

    Has anyone seen the c. 1959 Oscar Levant Show where Astaire doesn't dance but sings all his great jazz inspired hits? Better than his later 1970's appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.-especially as Levant himself is the pianist..
    Astaire also does his impression of Sam Goldwyn if he were singing OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY.

  • Leslie Donaldson | August 4, 2011 7:48 AMReply

    Funny that the title comes from the song Ginger Rogers sings in their first movie, Flying Down to Rio.
    Her comic phrasing is put to very good use in the (clever) lyrics . "My self control was something to brag about, now its a gag about town......"I hear music , then I'm through ...for music makes me do the things I never should do." Her approach is more like the Ginger of "We're in the Money" than the later Astaire-Rogers films. A recording of Ginger doing a radio broadcast of the song to promote the movie is also very entertaining.Astaire does not do it in the movie, as I recall.? A Vincent Youmans song.

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