This homage to a handful of Tin Pan Alley's most prolific female songwriters, complete with generous samples of music, vitaphone film clips and TV kinescopes to underscore the thoughtful narration, will no doubt hear the cheers of serious students of American music history.

This homage to a handful of Tin Pan Alley’s most prolific female songwriters, complete with generous samples of music, vitaphone film clips and TV kinescopes to underscore the thoughtful narration, will no doubt hear the cheers of serious students of American music history.

Hosted by Broadway star Betty Buckley who performs a few of their songs with conviction, docu focuses on several femme tunesmith trailblazers, including Dorothy Fields, Kay Swift, Dana Suesse and Ann Ronell. They not only penned some of the biggest hits of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s in a male-dominated music business, but they also matched talents with the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.

Centerpiece of the docu is the career of brilliant lyricist Dorothy Fields who, for starters, wrote the lyrics to “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Sunny Side of the Street.”

The daughter of vaudeville legend Lew Fields, she teamed with songwriting great Jimmy McHugh in the late 1920s. Following a succession of hits, she collaborated with the dean of American composers, Kern, on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, “Swingtime,” from which several standards emerged: “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.” Interviews with composer Cy Coleman provide a perspective of Fields during the 1960s when they collaborated on “Sweet Charity.”

To underscore the narration and bevy of film clips, (including rare home movies from Harold Arlen), docu utilizes the ubiquitous Michael Feinstein, Field’s son, David Lahm, and music historian Artis Wodehose to offer anecdotes and insight into these women’s careers.

In addition to Buckley’s perf, Feinstein, tenor Robert White, Peter Mintun, Nora Michaels, Max Morath and Joan Morris perform heartfelt song tributes to these women.

One of the docu’s irresistible dynamics is the use of classic TV clips from the 1950s featuring such stalwarts as Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman performing Field’s “I Must Have That Man,” Rosemary Clooney (in a tour-de-force perf) singing “Sunny Side of the Street” and a great clip of Frank Sinatra and the Hi-Low’s performing “I’ll Never Smile Again” (written by Ruth Lowe) in the Dorsey-era style.

Docu explores the famous works of these lesser known composers: Kay Swift wrote the score to the Broadway hit “Fine and Dandy” in 1930; Dana Suesse wrote “You Oughta Be in Pictures” before she was 21; and Ann Ronell penned “Willow Weep for Me” and “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” before scoring “G.I. Joe,” for which she earned two Oscar noms.

Director Terry Benes’ approach will help ensure their legacy because of her straightforward filmmaking style of interpolating current cabaret performances of their songs by today’s chanteuses, utilizing historical clips blended with praises by respected contemporary historians and musicians alike which capture the brilliance of these forgotten ladies’ careers. There’s not a single bad note to be heard.

American Masters - Yours for a Song: The Women of Tin Pan Alley

WNET; Wed. Aug. 18, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in various locations by American Masters, Thirteen/WNET and Lumiere Prods. Executive producers, Susan Lacy, Cal Skaggs; producer, writer, director, Terry Benes; senior producer, Tamar Hacker; co-producer, Holly Gill; associate producer, Jennifer Raikes; editor, Pamela Scott Arnold; director of photography, Edward Marritz; sound, Mark Mandler; music adviser, Peter Mintun. 60 MIN. Host: Betty Buckley.
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