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The Fred Astaire Songbook

Say the name Fred Astaire and two things usually come to mind - Dancing and Ginger Rogers. But another important element of Astaire's talent is often overlooked - his singing. The 1991 documentary The Fred Astaire Songbook (originally part of PBS's Great Performances series) focuses on Astaire's musical talents. Irving Berlin, who called Astaire his favorite singer, pointed out that while Astaire may not have been a great voice, his rhythm and timing were any songwriter's dream. "He's not just a great dancer," said Berlin. "He's a great singer of songs."

The Fred Astaire Songbook is hosted by Audrey Hepburn who starred opposite Astaire in Funny Face (1957). She calls the experience the "fulfillment of a dream" - like every woman she wanted to dance with Fred Astaire. And so too, apparently, every songwriter wanted to write for him. According to the program, Fred Astaire had more songs written expressly for him than any other singer. Astaire worked with everyone from Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to the Gershwins and Johnnie Mercer. Many song clips are featured in the program. Highlights include Astaire performances of Night and Day (Cole Porter), Let's Call the Whole Thing Off (Gershwin) and Cheek to Cheek (Berlin). There's also Astaire romancing Ginger Rogers with the Gershwin tune They Can't Take That Away From Me in two different films, twelve years apart -- Shall We Dance (1937) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). Another clip features Astaire playing piano and singing the Cole Porter tune I've Got My Eyes on You in the film Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940).

Rarely before seen footage catches Astaire rehearsing the number Slap the Base on the set of Shall We Dance. There's also a Dick Cavett interview with Astaire and a 1958 appearance on The Oscar Levant Show. And of course The Fred Astaire Songbook captures many of the entertainer's best screen moments. Film clips include: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easter Parade (1948), Royal Wedding (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953).

The grace and style of Astaire's work speaks for itself though it's still interesting to hear others comment on his talent. The program includes interviews with Liza Minnelli, who says of Astaire, "his interpretation of a song was so pure - he gave equal value to the music and words." Also interviewed is film critic turned filmmaker Richard Schickel who believes Astaire sang the songs the way the songwriters heard them in their heads. "There was a casual elegance to the way they wrote music," says Schickel. "And a casual elegance to the way he performed their music."

But perhaps the most meaningful quote comes from Irving Berlin (who scored six Astaire films, including three at RKO with Ginger Rogers). Berlin said, "Writing for Fred was different from writing for other singers. If I was writing songs for a picture with Bing Crosby or a show with Al Jolson or Ethel Merman, I just wrote the songs and they sang them. But with Fred, I wrote the songs with him in mind." It seems hard to imagine a higher compliment.

Producer: Julie Hope Carter, David Heeley, Joan Kramer, Roger Mayer, Jac Venza
Director: David Heeley
Screenplay: John L. Miller
Cinematography: Robert Long, Jr.
Film Editing: Scott P. Doniger
Cast: Audrey Hepburn (host), Adele Astaire, Peter Duchin, Will Friedwald, Liza Minnelli.
BW & C-65m.

by Stephanie Thames VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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