No one on television does show business biography better than PBS' American Masters series.
Tonight, American Masters revisits the life of Judy Garland, one of the greatest concert hall performers we have ever known, and it is two hours of pop culture bliss. It's not a perfect biography. In fact, some might argue it's not even a biography if the word is meant to include a critical study of a life or career. There is little criticism here.
American Masters' Judy Garland: By Myself is an appreciation of her fabulous career from vaudeville to MGM films, and the concert stages of America and Europe. But making the two-hour film more than just a forget-your-troubles-come-on-get-happy trip through the video vault are Garland's own words about her life and art found by producer-director Susan Lacy on audio recordings that Garland did in preparation for her memoirs (which were never written).
Hearing Garland's words explaining parts of her life and career as she is seen in performance delivers a powerful sense of her existence and psyche. The demons she talks about to the tape recorder only make her onstage triumphs seem greater.
But I say "sense" for a reason: Garland is not exactly what one would call a reliable narrator, and the film gives little guidance as to which of her words should be believed. Furthermore, viewers never hear the actual conversations Garland had with the tape recorder before her death in 1969 at age 47. Instead, in the name of clarity and sound quality, actress Isabel Keating (currently starring as Garland on Broadway in The Boy From Oz) voices Garland's words.
Such re-creation can raise issues of credibility. Lacy, the executive producer of American Masters and Emmy Award-winning director of an acclaimed biography of Leonard Bernstein, is as trustworthy as they come in the world of TV biography. But, ultimately, it is a matter of trust on the viewer's part.
Those who make the leap of faith are in for a terrific TV ride from the opening sequence. As Garland is shown in concert lighted by a single spotlight, her singing is interrupted by the loud, intrusive sound of someone blowing into a microphone, testing it.
"Is it working?" a voice asks. "Well, I'm just trying to a get a few thoughts down - talking into this tape machine. I'm all by myself as usual. I don't know if anybody is interested, but I am. ... Do you realize how many people have talked about me, written about me, imitated me? Well, it's high time to stop. This is the story of my life and I, Judy Garland, am gonna talk."
It is as perfect a backstage/onstage moment as one can imagine. Who wouldn't want to see where this film will go?
In the end, despite the promise made in that opening statement of Garland telling her own story, it is the onstage moments that make By Myself such a powerful viewing experience. Just as she did with Bernstein, Lacy is wise enough to give viewers full takes of Garland's best work rather than slicing and dicing it into the sound-bite snippets our TV culture has taught us to accept.
Simply hearing Garland sing the full movie version of "The Man That Got Away" will be enough to satisfy some fans. The still photographs from her legendary concerts at the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall are stunning. They are also nicely contextualized through interviews.
"She rocked that theater," actress Ann Miller says of Garland's Carnegie Hall performance. "She just ripped that audience to pieces."
And wait until you see the segments of her singing with Barbra Streisand and Lena Horne - from her troubled CBS series, The Judy Garland Show. It makes one want to weep for the way network television can devour talent when it follows its own worst instincts.
By Myself is a bittersweet viewing experience. But the bitterness of Garland's life is redeemed by the sweetness and power of her voice given a fuller range and lovingly brought back to prime-time television by American Masters.
Judy Garland: By Myself
When: Tonight at 9
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
In brief: A great show-biz life story lovingly told.