Oldies But Goodies 

The television event

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001

The Wizard of Oz will air on the Turner Classic Movies network July 3 and again on the 4th, nonthematically attached to Independence Day, as in years past it was to Easter and Thanksgiving. Like most old movies, it has become television for all intents and purposes, though at the same time it is bigger than TV. When I was a wee bairn, in the days before VCRs and multiple movie-rerun networks, the annual broadcast of Oz was a genuine Television Event; nowadays, with an ever-expanding televerse exerting anti-gravitational force on an audience increasingly split by an embarrassment of niches, “television event” is an almost meaningless phrase. “Event television” is what they do now, and that’s something else entirely -- the pandering low road. It‘s not that TV was any better in olden times, because there is much evidence (Petticoat Junction, anyway) to say it was not; but less was more. The Wizard of Oz was rendered all the more valuable by the rarity of its appearance -- a heretical notion in this age of have-it-when-you-want-it, when junior may replay A Garfield Christmas until his eyes bleed. But when every day is Christmas, what does Christmas mean?

CBS gave the movie, leased from MGM, its first airing back in 1956, to an estimated audience of 45 million, which I believe was half as many people as were on Earth at the time. Like any precious jewel or Franklin Mint collectible, like a sacred holiday icon, it was mounted for presentation, given a proper setting, displayed with pomp and circumstance, including a celebrity host (Danny Kaye in the years I recall, but Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr, Red Skelton, Richard “Paladin” Boone and Dick Van Dyke before him). NBC had it for a while in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, then it returned to CBS, where it lived until the lease ran out a few years ago and ownership reverted to Turner, which had in the meantime eaten MGM (and was in turn eaten by Time Warner, which was then eaten by AOL). This is TCM’s second broadcast of the film -- commercial-free, they would like you to know. You can, of course, see it without commercials any old time if you own it or rent it, but this showing won‘t cost you anything, if you don’t count what you pay for cable. And it‘s better to have a version you can’t pause; you owe it to the film to watch it on its terms, not yours. Assemble your snacks beforehand. Pee first.

In order to underscore the specialness of this special event, Turner has made as a curtain raiser the quickie documentary Memories of Oz, a ragtag hodgepodge half-hour of random facts, eyewitness reports and expert testimony that offers no real revelations: Judy was a sweet kid, Bert Lahr was a Leo, the skullcaps the munchkins wore were uncomfortable, hey those backgrounds were painted. But the clips alone, the movie‘s powerful, saturated images -- the Wicked Witch’s green hands reaching for the ruby slippers, the four friends advancing toward the phony head of Oz with the captured broom -- do get you excited about the picture to follow. (The 1990 documentary The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 50 Years of Magic will air afterward.) Interviewees include Bert Lahr‘s look-alike daughter; John Waters, the man who takes the irony out of camp, always worth turning on the TV for; and a fistful of little people. Though the movie’s creators and stars all have gone over the rainbow to the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, not even by balloon or clicked heels, there are surviving Munchkins (there were 127 of them, after all), some of whom appear here dressed in Munchkinwear, worn with surprising dignity. Or not surprising: To be a former Munchkin seems not simply to have been a movie extra; in terms of group pride, it‘s more like having been a New York Yankee or a Flying Tiger. And Buddy Ebsen, the Tin Man Who Wasn’t, tells again how the aluminum dust used in his makeup put him in the hospital and killed his chance to be as big as Jack Haley; even now, post--Jed Clampett, post--Barnaby Jones, he sounds sad about it. And who can blame him? The Wizard of Oz is as perfect a thing as a committee ever created -- as perfect as macaroni, as a kite, as a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Like all great works of art -- though to call it a work of art is almost to limit it, so general and unending is its cultural effect -- it‘s both of its time and, 60-some years on, timeless. I can’t believe anyone old enough to read these words hasn‘t seen it, but if you’re the freak that hasn‘t, get educated. The rest of you watch it too.

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TNT’s all-star tribute to once and former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, entitled An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson, follows similar all-star tributes to Burt Bacharach, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell. It is just the sort of program that once would have qualified as a television event, but now struggles against the static of the medium‘s decreasing signal-to-noise ratio. Taped before a live audience at Radio City Music Hall, about 3,000 miles from Hawthorne, CA, it features a motley collection of big- and medium-name pop singers, including Paul Simon, Elton John, Ricky Martin, Carly Simon, the Go-Go’s, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Matthew Sweet, David Crosby, Jimmy Webb, the Harlem Boys Choir and a reunited Wilson Phillips, making hay or hash out of a couple of dozen tunes from Wilson‘s back catalog. Hosted by odd-choice ethnic Easterner Chazz Palminteri (nice shirt, though), it has the slightly square cadence and language and production values of your garden-variety awards show, mixed with the now-standard hectic camerawork that was MTV’s gift to the mainstream.

The story of Wilson and his discordant harmonizing kin is basic rock lore, and television has told that tale oft before -- the Beach Boys have been the subject of not one but two ABC biopics (1990‘s Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys and last year’s The Beach Boys: An American Family), as well as sundry documentaries, including 1976‘s dark and strange It’s Okay, produced by Lorne Michaels, and a more recent Brian Wilson A&E Biography. The main points of the Life of Brian are here rehearsed again, in filmed segments my press kit labels “Beauty,” “Pet Sounds,” “Survivor” and “Revolutionary,” narrated respectively and more or less appropriately by Rachel Hunter (beach-bunny type), Cameron Crowe (ardent fancritic), Dennis Hopper (reconditioned ‘60s burnout) and Sir George Martin (producer friend of the Beatles). The subject is compared to Gershwin, Bach and Mozart, in case you thought it was all just Dick Dale and the Four Freshmen with him. The brilliance of Pet Sounds, rock’s Citizen Kane (belatedly appreciated masterpiece whose young creator develops problems with follow-through and gets fat), is asserted. And Wilson is again described, as he will ever be described -- needlessly, I think, and tiresomely, but modishly -- as a victim. “Brian Wilson is truly the ultimate heroic survivor!” cries Hopper, as the tattered corpse of an abusive dad is once more raked over the hot coals of public opprobrium. (Murray Wilson, meet your posterity.) Arguably rock‘s best-known head case, Brian is clearly healthier than he once was -- he’s off drugs, he‘s out of bed, he’s touring, he‘s a family man, he’s in technically better voice than, say, Sinatra was at his age, or Dylan is -- but he‘s just as clearly some kind of permanently damaged goods. He lacks affect, and seems more on display than in charge -- though one at least feels he is surrounded now by people who respect his art and want the best for him, rather than the most from him. Still, tribute may also constitute exploitation. Corporate entities and private individuals are making money here; and by honoring Wilson, TNT annexes his particular magic and prestige, not to say that of his participating friends and admirers.

The evening’s house band, which is Wilson‘s touring band and includes members of L.A.’s the Wondermints, adeptly reproduces the original arrangements, turning the show into a kind of rarefied karaoke, with the accent on the early hits and the holy Pet Sounds. Only the Go-Go‘s (a punky “Surf City”) and Paul Simon (a folk-Baroque “Surfer Girl”) make the songs entirely their own, though other singers find their moments of personality assertion. Whom you like will depend mainly on whom you like already, but Vince Gill was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. (As Billy Joel, say, was not.) The crowd loves it all: They sing, they dance, they standing-ovate. And if so much unrelieved sincere praise can make even the acolyte skeptical -- Don Rickles has his tonic use on such occasions -- it’s not like Wilson doesn‘t deserve the kudos, and given the hard times, it’s nice to see him get them. “Love and mercy,” he sings in the evening‘s final performance, “is what you need.” As who does not, until Daddy takes the T-bird away.

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