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Dean Martin: King of Cool (2021)

This is the second Dean Martin documentary I’ve watched this year, so as I sat down, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I mean, his story was already told… wasn’t it? Very few performers are quite as ingrained in the pop culture consciousness as Dean Martin. Even if you haven’t watched him in a movie, chances are you’ve seen him at his relaxed, cool, liquor-swilling best. How much more needs to be said? Quite a bit, it turns out. Here’s what you need to know about Dean Martin: King of Cool.

Dean Martin: King of Cool tells the story of singer, actor, comedian, and general cool cat Dean Martin from his childhood in Steubenville Ohio and tracing his career through its many phases. Martin wore several hats throughout his career, from serving as Jerry Lewis’ “straight man”, to his time with Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack, to his happy, but complex family life. Dean Martin: King of Cool brings several well-known faces to celebrate Martin’s career: Angie Dickinson, Bob Newhart, Norman Lear, Tommy Tune, and his daughter Deana to name just a few. Tom Donahue directs the documentary.

Dean Martin is… Dean Martin. Most people remember him like this:

Or even like this:

Dean Martin is an icon of mid-twentieth-century culture who’s come to represent all the ambiance of lounge culture and Las Vegas at its most iconic. He always had a drink, a cigarette and was having an absolute blast.

Interestingly though, Dean Martin: King of Cool zeroes in on a side of Martin that isn’t often talked about: his humanity. It doesn’t take long for the documentary to tear down his long-established, hard-drinking persona as exactly what it was, a persona created to aid his transition from his popular double act with Jerry Lewis to a single.

Through stellar use of archive footage and interviews, Dean Martin: King of Cool shifts the cultural discussion of Dean Martin. Audiences see the clips that we love and remember. However, while many works choose simply to revel in the nostalgia, this time out, we hear people talk about Martin. There are interviews with the people who knew him, many of which expose his inherent complexity which is often ignored. In one delightful story, we hear about one of the many, famous parties held by his then wife Jeanne Martin. While most would guess that Martin was having a blast, he was actually hiding out because he wanted to watch television. Even more comedically, Martin called the police and reported his own wife’s party to get the peace wanted.

In tackling Martin’s life, Donahue makes a whip-smart decision to structure this documentary a bit differently. Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack play much more of a supporting role this time out. Throughout history, Sinatra and Martin’s stories have almost grown together to become intrinsically linked. It’s hard to think of one without the other. However, in the films sensitive discussion of this relationship, it becomes clear that this pairing (and Sinatra’s dynamic personality) really overshadowed Martin. It’s difficult to imagine Dino as the quiet one, but thus is the struggle at the core of this fascinating man.

Throughout the film, there’s a deep sense of complexity that leaps off the screen. It’s almost challenging to comprehend that a figure as remembered and well-loved as Dean Martin could be such an enigma. He was so well-known, but no one seems to have really known him.

As a documentary, it is fighting an uphill battle. Few performers are quite as pigeonholed inside a persona as Dean Martin; however, the film finds the man behind the facade and shines a new light on his lengthy career. As the ending credits roll, there’s a new appreciation for Dino Crocetti the man apart from Dean Martin the performer.

Get ready for lots of Dino hitting TCM this month thanks to a two-night celebration of Dean Martin and his work all anchored by Dean Martin: King of Cool. This documentary is not only worth it for Martin’s legions of fans, but for TCM viewers as a whole. There’s a lot of love here and it shows.

Dean Martin: King of Cool airs on TCM tonight at 8:00pm PST in front of a night of Dean Martin programming.

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