Those of us born too long ago to have cut our teeth on MTV have limited opportunities to see the music we listen to. This month offers a chance to make up for lost time with two series of tapes featuring the music videos' historical antecedents from the '40s through the '60s. While these filmed performances lack the provocative camera angle, special effects and production-number choreography that jazz up today's mini-musicals, they offer the stage presence of performers who worked their magic before a live audience more often than a mixing board. And there is something to be said for their music, too.
The big band sound of the '40s and '50s comes to the small screen with "Swing: The Best of the Big Bands," a four-tape series due next week from MCA. Each of the four 50-minute, $24.95 tapes ($79.95 for the set) features 18 to 20 songs as filmed in black and white by Universal for use in the variety show shorts that used to precede the features. Included are vintage performances by Billie Holiday ("God Bless the Child"), Gene Krupa ("Stompin' at the Savoy"), Count Basie ("Red Bank Boogie"), Nat King Cole ("Route 66") and many more in film clips that, with a few exceptions, have been out of circulation since their original release. Says Jim Washburn, the project's creative consultant, "Some of the material is kind of corny or hokey, but it's all very professionally done. People dressed up nice back then. And they're all happy -- because swing is happy music."
Somewhat less happy or well dressed, but equally fondly remembered, is early rock 'n' roll, which exists on film primarily through the occasional television appearances of its artists. Sony Video Softwear has some of this material on tape, and is cutting the prices later this month on much of its '50s and '60s footage. "The Real Buddy Holly Story," a 90-minute documentary new to video, leads off the promotion ($29.95), which also includes "James Brown: Live in London" ($19.95); "Jimi Hendrix: Johnny B. Goode" ($14.95); "Otis Redding: Ready Steady Go!" ($14.95); and films of the original 1966 Monterey Pop festival, a British television concert featuring the stars of Motown, and the 1969 "Supershow" concert featuring Eric Clapton, Steven Stills, Led Zeppelin and the Modern Jazz Quartet, among others ($19.95 each).
More Golden Musicals
Of course, the '40s and '50s didn't need MTV -- they had MGM, which in turn had a virtual monopoly on the movie musical. MGM/UA Home Video has released three dozen of these classics in its aptly titled Great Musicals line of $29.95 tapes, to which it is adding six more this month. The best news is Judy Garland and "The Harvey Girls," the 1946 frontier musical that's remembered for "Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe." Also seen is Angela Lansbury as a madam -- one of her less than respectable characters that Jessica Fletcher of "Murder, She Wrote" may sadly overshadow forever. Garland also headlines 1950's "Summer Stock," with Gene Kelly and its famous "Get Happy" finale. Kelly dances with a cartoon mouse in "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) and with an uncharacteristically dry Esther Williams in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), both of which also star Frank Sinatra. Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson warble through a somewhat operatic score in "The Toast of New Orleans" (1950). And the circus epic "Billy Rose's Jumbo" (1962), with Jimmy Durante, offers Doris Day's final musical performance; one of the biggest stars of the period, Day did much of her musical work at Warner Bros., which regrettably hasn't been as conscientious about mining its musical treasures for home video releases as MGM.
The War at Home
The video business continues its campaign to bring the living room war back to home screens with a trio of Vietnam movies from CBS/Fox. All three eschew combat footage to focus on domestic drama: the recent "Gardens of Stone"; 1973's "Gordon's War," in which Vietnam Vets start a drug war in Harlem; and "Friendly Fire," the 1979 television adaptation of C.D.B. Bryan's best seller. The films will hit the rental market later this month.
Take Me Back to the Ball Game Anyone who watched the World Series on ABC probably saw an ad or two for the "Official 1987 World Series Video," which the network prepared in conjunction with Major League Baseball and CBS/Fox. Its release has been scheduled for next Friday, Nov. 13, less than three weeks after the Twins' final victory. In addition to the usual game highlights, the $19.98, 60-minute tape offers material not shown on television, including behind-the-scenes footage and player interviews. It also provides a video record of the first week in which ABC topped the prime-time ratings since the 1986 Liberty Weekend extravaganza -- the topic of the network's last "instant video" effort.