TV Review: American Masters’ ‘Bing Crosby Rediscovered’

With:
Narrator: Stanley Tucci

Among music, radio, movies and (eventually, and grudgingly) TV, Bing Crosby crammed two or three careers into a single lifetime, which makes him prime fodder for “American Masters” treatment — representing, as he’s noted here, the “first multimedia star” of the 20th century. Still, the crooner’s personal life poses a hurdle that “Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” a generally first-rate documentary from writer-producer-director Robert Trachtenberg, struggles to clear. Ultimately, the mix feels about right, spending most of its time on why Crosby is worth remembering without ignoring his troubled children and allegations that he was an abusive father.

Drawing from access to Crosby’s archives granted by his estate, Trachtenberg weaves in some remarkable audio — from the singer arguing with Decca Records founder Jack Capp, to dictated messages about what to do regarding his children. It was a 1983 book by Crosby’s son Gary, accusing his father of abusive behavior, which clouded his father’s legacy, despite some of his other kids defending their dad — a situation that’s addressed here, albeit sparingly.

Still, “Crosby Rediscovered” is most memorable for how it captures just what a massive star Crosby became, with his distinctive, intimate singing style; and what’s described as his “mischievous and unpretentious” film persona, best exemplified in his “Road” movie series opposite Bob Hope.

William Paley’s decision to sign Crosby “saved CBS Radio,” it’s noted, and it was Crosby who went on to champion taping shows in advance after World War II — transforming the medium from live to tape practically overnight.

The documentary also provides several interesting anecdotes — some related, via old interviews or recordings, by Crosby himself — about the reluctance to cast him as a priest in “Going My Way”; the surprise over what a huge hit “White Christmas” became; and his initial resistance to do television, where he ultimately found a very comfortable home. (Featured are amusing clips of his teeth-gnashing holiday specials featuring his family, and an awkward duet with David Bowie.)

Singers Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein and biographer Gary Giddins are particularly good at conveying the source of Crosby’s popularity, illustrated at one point by comparing his performance of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with those by Rudy Vallee and Al Jolson. The same goes for Crosby championing various artists either on the way up or down in their careers, from a young Rosemary Clooney to a rebounding Judy Garland.

Narrated by Stanley Tucci, “Bing Crosby Rediscovered” should be a welcome jolt of nostalgia to those who remember Crosby, and a nifty introduction for the few younger folk who might deign to give it a look. And while Trachtenberg can’t cover everything in a 90-minute format, in what might be considered a symbolic tribute to an old crooner, he at least manages to hit the high notes.

TV Review: American Masters' 'Bing Crosby Rediscovered'

(Documentary; PBS, Tue. Dec. 2, 8 p.m.)

Production: Produced by Thirteen Prods.’ American Masters for WNET.

Crew: Executive producers, Susan Lacy, Michael Kantor; supervising producer, Junko Tsunashima; series producer, Julie Sacks; producer-writer-director, Robert Trachtenberg; editor, Gillian McCarthy. 90 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Stanley Tucci

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