[17 April 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“Has there ever been anyone, in the entire history of the world, cooler than Dean Martin?” asks narrator William Sackett at the beginning of Dean Martin: The One and Only, and the ensuing 70-minute documentary works hard to answer that question with a resounding “Not a chance!”
But Dino Paul Crocetti, as he was born, wasn’t really the flashy, “Hey, get a load of me!” cool; he was the almost aloof kind of cool that’s content just to be what it is and let everybody else trip over their feet for trying. In fact, the overall impression you get from The One and Only is that rarely has someone so famous and well-liked been so comfortable in their own shoes. And maybe it’s because of this easier-than-easygoing demeanor and what-you-see-is-what-you-get image that Martin has always existed in the shadows of former partners Frank Sinatra and, to a lesser extent, Jerry Lewis. Even now, though Martin’s music still sells, he’s seen as slightly more camp, more Italian Sinatra Lite.
Writer/Director Martin Almoruso, then, takes it upon himself to give Martin his proper due. Over and over again, the viewer is reminded that Martin was a Big Star in his own right. He was a successful comedian. An accomplished singer. A huge live act. A chart-topping recording artist. A movie star. A TV star. Indeed, it’s easy to forget (if one ever knew) that Martin’s scope was so broad during his 1950s and ‘60s heyday. But Almoruso does neither his production nor Martin’s legacy any favors by pitting Martin against Sinatra and Lewis. Martin himself never had a chip on his shoulder, so why suggest that he had reason to?
Thankfully, most of the hyperbole-laden defensiveness is over after 15 minutes, and the rest of The One and Only proves to be a tastefully-produced, downright engrossing biopic. Like many more entertainment icons than Hollywood or New York care to admit, Martin was the product of a Midwestern upbringing. Almoruso traces Martin’s life from his childhood in working-class Steubenville, Ohio, to his nightclub beginnings in New York, through his ridiculously successful partnership with Lewis and his membership in the iconoclastic Rat Pack, to his relatively mellow and embarrassment-free twilight years. Each primary phase in Martin’s career gets a separate segment that is bookended by some well chosen quotes and footage.
The short running time doesn’t allow The One and Only to go into too much depth. Still, the story is compelling because Almoruso doesn’t shy away from Martin’s multiple marriages, womanizing, struggles with fatherhood and generally closed-book personality. (The one exception is Martin’s reputation as a heavy boozer, which Almoruso goes suspiciously far to discredit). Even in black-and-white, Martin’s warmth radiates from the screen; it’s a charisma that can only come from being honest.
The generous archival performance, film and TV footage is interspersed with Behind the Music-style commentary from authors and critics whose connection to Martin is tangential at best. More insightful are a few comments from contemporaries like comedian Pat Cooper and author Gay Talese. There is also some footage from an unidentified latter-day interview with Martin himself, looking resigned but handsome nonetheless. Along with some interesting trivia (for example, Martin’s singing and performing style was copped from early vocal group the Mills Brothers), the viewer is treated to some genuinely emotional moments, such as Martin’s on-stage reunions with Lewis in 1976 and 1989. Almoruso’s little documentary does a better job than Sony’s 2002 TV movie Martin and Lewis at getting to the essence of the most successful duo in comedy history.
Fanatical Martin scholars will probably not learn much from The One and Only, but music buffs and casual fans will be pleasantly surprised. Of course, Dean Martin was really, really cool, but that’s only part of what makes his story special.