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The Benny Goodman Story
cast: Steve Allen, Donna Reed, Berta Gersten, Herbert Anderson, and Sammy Davis Sr

director: Valentine Davies

116 minutes (U) 1956
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
About 20 years ago, listening to a late-night jazz programme on BBC Radio 3, I heard an extract from a concert that I have subsequently discovered to be the ground-breaking Carnegie Hall concert given by the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1938 (a concert which concludes this film). The extract played was the moment when Goodman, finishing his own solo, allowed piano-player Jess Stacy centre-stage. The radio presenter explained that Goodman had a poor relationship with Stacy but the pianist took his moment with gratitude. The resulting solo was a melancholically haunting piece seemingly at odds with the celebration of 'swing' that had gone before and, with drummer Gene Krupa's pounding of the skins, which came after. Now that I have identified the concert, and enjoyed the music in this biopic, I find I have little choice but to buy the four CD set of the concert re-mastered with some other album material from the 1950s.

Jess Stacey does not feature in this inevitably fictionalised biopic, his place at the piano stool taken by Teddy Wilson; apparently the inventions and the liberties the filmmakers took afforded Goodman and his wife considerable amusement. Born into a poor but honest Jewish family, actually with a Polish father and a Lithuanian mother, in Chicago in 1909, the film has Goodman string along with his elder brothers when their dad gets them to take advantage of free music tuition as a means of keeping out of trouble. Benny, by the power of montage, quickly excels at the clarinet and discovers jazz when he sits in with a dance band to earn some cash and meets the trombonist Kid Ory.

The public, beyond a hardcore of fans, are resistant to jazz but, after a successful career as a session man and tours with nationally known bands, Goodman is eager to create his own sound. A slot on NBC's Let's Dance radio show, helped by arrangements from influential bandleader Fletcher Henderson (Sammy Davis Sr), brings Goodman to prominence; although the show goes out too late at night to draw a large east coast following, the west coast is won over. Goodman and his band are unaware of their following in California until they play the Palomar Ballroom in L.A. at the end of an otherwise disappointing tour. Setting aside the standards they have been forced to dish up, their own arrangements bring an ecstatic reaction from the young and enthusiastic crowd.

Reluctant to play New York, which Goodman believes is a jinx-town for jazz; his orchestra eventually opens in the Paramount Cinema to another ecstatic reaction despite a 10am slot. Goodman eventually brings cultural respectability for swing by playing a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall where he uses big names like Harry James to augment the band to showcase all that the music has to offer.

Alongside the formal aspects of Goodman's career is the story of his awkward fledgling romance with society highbrow Anne Hammond sister of the Columbia Records producer John Hammond. The film suggests that their courtship was a long painful process disrupted by Goodman's touring, their different social backgrounds, conflicting cultural tastes and the resistance of Goodman's mother. In actual fact they were married after three months of dating. After a separation the film has Anne fly back from Vermont to take her place in the auditorium at Carnegie Hall next to Benny's mother to make his triumph complete.

Benny Goodman is played with a careful diffidence bordering on the wooden, by legendary actor, comedian, writer, musician and composer Steve Allen. The role must have been a labour of love for Allen as he was a devoted fan of jazz music. His references to 'hot music' in the film seem as incongruous now as Bing Crosby's jive talk to Louis Armstrong in High Society. Donna Reed is as radiant as ever as Anne Hammond, although she has little enough to do except hint at her character's growing admiration for her future husband with expressions of curious fascination.

The cast is supplemented by a host of jazz greats like Ben Pollack, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Harry James and Teddy Wilson playing themselves.
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