'The Godfather Legacy'

As nostalgic summer alternatives go, producer/director/co-writer Kevin Burns makes an offering you shouldn't refuse.

Rather appropriately, “The Godfather Legacy” — a History documentary about the acclaimed movies — starts out strong, before withering a bit in the final third. Painstakingly researched and incorporating a host of academics as well as many of the principals, the entertaining two-hour doc marks the original film’s 40th anniversary, similar to the channel’s 35-year “Jaws” commemoration. Whatever the flaws and oversights, as nostalgic summer alternatives go, producer/director/co-writer Kevin Burns makes an offering you shouldn’t refuse.

Narrated by “The Sopranos'” Michael Imperioli, the documentary races pretty briskly through the making of Mario Puzo’s novel, including tidbits from such central players as director Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, James Caan and then-Paramount exec turned Variety editorial director Peter Bart, whose boss Robert Evans (not interviewed) wanted someone better looking and more bankable than Pacino — Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford, say — in the role of Michael Corleone.

As for Marlon Brando, Bart recalls the general consensus at the time deemed the actor “self-destructive, and pretty well burnt out,” while noting Coppola’s resistance to doing the movie at all. (Coppola relented, he says, largely because he desperately needed the money, as then-colleague George Lucas urgently reminded him.)

As previously documented elsewhere, Coppola nearly didn’t survive the shoot, with the studio contemplating whether to fire him amid disputes about budget overruns and the film’s brooding darkness. Of course, all concerned were rewarded with an enormous hit, birthing the inevitable sequel, whose Oscar-winning quality might be even more impressive in hindsight than its forbear.

Few stones are left unturned in seeking to put the movie in cultural and even sociological context, including professors, mobsters and prosecutors (among them, somewhat jarringly, Eliot Spitzer and former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff). It’s also noted, persuasively, how the congressional hearings featured in “The Godfather Part II” — coming on the heels of Watergate — captured the national mood regarding power and corruption, while patriarch Vito Corleone’s immigrant story reflected a “tarnished American dream.”

If there’s a letdown, it’s in the portion devoted to the third movie, which despite being considered a disappointment relative to the others, offers all kinds of juicy storylines, including Robert Duvall’s decision not to return and Coppola casting his daughter Sofia in a key role — neither of which is mentioned. Coppola does acknowledge his mercenary motives in revisiting the material, but that hardly qualifies as a news flash.

Granted, those largely amount to quibbles, and it’s admirable for History to expand its lens to include these side trips into cinematic history — including the numerous catchphrases “The Godfather” introduced into the public lexicon.

By that measure, Coppola’s masterpiece did indeed yield a rich legacy, even if he never wanted it for himself.

The Godfather Legacy

History, Tues. July 24, 9 p.m.

Production

CREDITS: Produced by Prometheus Entertainment. Executive producers, Kevin Burns, Susan Leventhal; co-executive producers, Kim Sheerin, Scott Hardford; producer, Frankie Glass; director, Burns; writers, Burns, Brian Coughlin. 120 MIN.

Cast

With: Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire, Peter Bart. Narrator: Michael Imperioli.

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