Saturday, August 25, 2007

This is Tom Jones: Beg, Borrow, Steal, or Kill to Watch It

It'll come as no surprise to regular Dish visitors that the mighty Tom Jones can do no wrong in these parts. So the arrival on region 1 DVD of This is Tom Jones: Rock 'n' Roll Legends, a three disc set of episodes of Jones' 1969-1971 variety show, is like a spike of pure China white for anyone with a Jones jones.
The series came at a key point in the God of Pump's career. He'd already established himself as a proven hitmaker with three worldwide chart-toppers ("It's Not Unusual", "What's New, Pussycat?", and "Delilah") by the time the show debuted, and it remained to be seen if he'd be accepted into American and British living rooms as a TV star.

Both sides of the pond responded enthusiastically in the affirmative, and it's easy to see why from the evidence at hand. This is Tom Jones skewed closely to the traditional variety-show format of the day, giving the TV audience what it wanted (musical acts and comics as guest stars, and copious screen time for the virile star) and showing off Jones at what was probably the peak of his vocal firepower.

The joys contained on this three-disc DVD set from Time-Life Video runneth over. Even if--God forbid--you're not a fan of the Welsh Wonder, you can drink deep in the heady surrealism of the conceptual musical numbers, where late hippie-era psychedelia and showbiz glitz collide with resounding force. Looking for Tom Jones in circulation-constricting orange bell-bottoms belting out the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out", surrounded by go-go dancers frugging in goofy puzzle-piece patterned jumpsuits? It's here. How about The Man pitching musical woo with a gaggle of mini-skirted cuties who do no more than bob their heads like geese crossing a street in formation? Check.

This is Tom Jones, like all of its variety show brethren, presents a cornucopia of entertainment, from rising comic talent (a very young Richard Pryor waxes hilarious about a local evangelist, and the great Fred Willard cuts his teeth in some winning work with sketch troupe The Ace Trucking Company) to acting greats letting their hair down (Anne Bancroft's bizarre monologue about Women's Lib, delivered in--get this--a bubble bath, must be seen to be believed).

But as the subtitle of the DVD set indicates, the musical numbers stand as the Crown Jewels here. Jones, pro that he is, gives even those absurd concept pieces his all, never once sneering down at the silliness, and the live numbers flat-out hit the stratosphere of real, non-ironic cool. He pulls off a tender duet with Lesley Uggams on the West Side Story chestnut "Somewhere" with unflappable grace, and then matches howling rock pioneer Little Richard slug for slug on a furious rockabilly medley. There's a great, free-wheeling looseness to these pairings: Stevie Wonder playfully inserts a few bars of "It's Not Unusual" into his collaboration with Jones, and old pal Burt Bacharach joins the big-voiced Welshman for an easygoing run-through of some of the former's classic standards. My favorite duet: Jones' sweat-inducing soul workout with the fiery Janis Joplin on "Raise your Hand" (dig this clip on YouTube) .

Each episode of This is Tom Jones closes with Jones taking the stage on his own, 100% live and backed by his full band . Anyone doubting the man's genius as a performer need look no further than these sequences (handily sectioned-out along with the rest of the musical numbers on each disc's menu if you're so inclined). Gifted with the most elastic hips and pelvis God gave a white man this side of Elvis Presley, and singing each note as though the fate of the universe hinged on it, Jones commands the stage like no one before or since. His synthesis of old-school showbiz and roof-raising soul shouting was never more perfect: Imagine seeing Elvis do a miniature '68 Comeback Special every week, and you're swinging in the right ballpark.


Some of the episodes have experienced some arbitrary-feeling cuts (whether for rights issues, or because some segments weren't deemed interesting enough, I don't know), and the transfers aren't always perfect, but what's there, as Spencer Tracy once deadpanned, is cherce. The generous extras include alternate US/UK versions of the Stevie Wonder episode, a funny vintage TV Season promo trailer, a 1969 television interview with Jones, and newly-taped segments with with the still-robust subject introducing each episode and providing anecdotes. Best of all is the lengthy 2007 interview, in which Jones relates heaps of great stories and insights with almost boyish enthusiasm. The guy's still brimming with energy, probably enough for another disc or two's worth of stories. And yes, Time-Life Video, that is a hint.

3 comments:

Marian said...

Great review!! Am happy to see such positive notes on Tom's new DVD.

Tony Kay said...

Thanks for reading, Marian. I'm a huge Jones fan (as you may have noticed from the earlier Tom post I linked at the beginning of this one!), so this set (and Time-Life Video's promise to issue more volumes) is manna from heaven.

Marian said...

How nice to see you are actually a male Tom Jones fan, and a very talented and knowledgeable writer as well. Your blog content is really appreciated by Tom's fans. We are always looking for positive reviews on this great singer.

I also hope further issues of This is Tom Jones will be in the near future. Tom's fans have been begging for this show to be resurrected for years.