There are certain performers who are like a fine wine. They might age, time might pass, but each time they come across the screen, there’s that magic. There’s something special about them. In truth, I can’t remember the first time I saw Dean Martin. He’s an icon, a legend and above all, he’s him. He’s the ‘King of Cool’. This is a common feeling among many. So, how does one jump into doing a documentary on such a well-studied and oft-examined persona? Well, read on friends.
Dean Martin: In the Spotlight takes a look into the life and career of Dean Martin, starting with his humble beginnings in Ohio through the his career explosion opposite Jerry Lewis, to the incarnation most remember as Martin became a member of The Rat Pack and later a fixture on nighttime TV. The special comes from director Piers Garland.
Garland presents Martin’s story in a digestible and easy watchable form. This isn’t a feature length documentary. In fact, the film feels a lot like a PBS special. So, with that being said, it doesn’t do a deep dive into Martin’s life and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In truth, this is less a documentary and more of a retrospective. It’s largely lacking interviews and remembrances of Martin. Much of the presented information is largely biographical. So, newcomers to Martin’s work might find some new knowledge to sink their teeth into; however, well-studied fans won’t find anything here they don’t already know. Though, in a career as long and as well-studied as Martin’s, so much has already been said.
However, what Dean Martin: In the Spotlight does do, is it manages to wrap itself around the heart of Martin’s story. It easily taps into the emotion of the narrative, particularly into the third act. I can honestly say… and I am a hardened (and occasionally jaded!) film critic who is relatively familiar with Martin’s life… I found myself getting a little misty. The film’s handing of the passing of Martin’s son (Dean Paul Martin) is particularly powerful, as is the treatment of Martin’s relationship with Lewis. I was surprised at my reaction, especially to the later (I will admit to struggling with Martin and Lewis).
There was one place where the feature really sets itself apart and that is in the use and incorporation of archival footage. Throughout the second and into the third act, Dean Martin: In the Spotlight utilizes very rare clips, many of which I personally haven’t seen before. The use of footage covers not only Martin’s career as a solo performer throughout the middle of the 1950s and into the 1960s, but also his time with Jerry Lewis and later with The Rat Pack.
While these clips are most important to Dean Martin’s persona, it also contributes to an appreciation of television history. Martin’s career spans the development of television as a medium. He appeared in The Colgate Comedy Hour with Jerry Lewis as far back as 1950. To put this in perspective, Toast of the Town (the predecessor to The Ed Sullivan Show) premiered in 1948 as did The Texaco Star Theater (hosted by Milton Berle), while Your Show of Shows (hosted by Sid Caesar) came around in 1950. This is television in its earliest form and seeing such a wide variety of hard-to-find clips included in Dean Martin: In the Spotlight made this little classic tv fan very happy.
The combination of information and archival footage in Dean Martin: In the Spotlight gels smoothly to really hone in on Dean Martin’s humanity, something which is easily lost in the scope of his career. Martin has long been defined as an almost untouchable ‘King of Cool’. Even twenty five years after his passing, his persona remains as iconic as it was during his life. While Dean Martin: In the Spotlight doesn’t break any new ground as a documentary, the tone the special manages to capture (aided by its use of clips) is certainly special. Fans of Martin might enjoy the variety of footage, but this less of a documentary and more of a retrospective and reflection of his life and persona.
Dean Martin: In the Spotlight is available online for purchase or rental through a wide variety of streamers, including: YouTube, iTunes and Amazon Prime.
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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