[2 October 2007]
Just recently, my fiancé was lamenting over the fact that she really didn’t mine her grandfather’s memory as much as she would have liked to in regards to his experiences on the frontlines of World War II. When she was growing up, her beloved “Pop-Pop” was a kindly old Irishman who loved to relax in his favorite chair in their family’s living room and listen to Mike and the Mad Dog on his trusty transistor radio with a Giants blanket draped over his legs to keep from getting a chill. But in another life, he also was a fearless soldier who was one of the few and the proud who survived the much-storied landing on Normandy Beach at D-Day and later stood firm as one of General Patton’s private guards.
My own grandfather, on the other hand, didn’t really see too much action where he was stationed in Greenland, luckily for my grandmother. The photos I have of him from World War II show him and his army buddies really sort of just hanging out on a big iceberg and celebrating somebody’s birthday (how they got a cake sent to them is still beyond me). Needless to say, my Papa’s war stories were nowhere near as exciting as those of my fiancé’s Pop-Pop’s or even my Great Uncle Ray’s, who was a highly decorated Navy officer during both World War II and the Korean War.
But the point is he had some kind of story to tell, as with just about every other American who served their country during the Big One. And it’s these types of stories, the fabric of our living national folklore that grows with the passing of each citizen of “The Greatest Generation”, which inspires master documentarian Ken Burns’ latest multi-faceted history lesson on World War II and the generation thrown into its hellfire. However, rather than just rehashing stock footage we have seen 1,000 times on the History Channel or Hollywoodland’s dramatic depictions of many of the great battles fought, Burns chose to bring his view of World War II from the frontlines of the American household, taking into the consideration the viewpoints of the soldier’s families as much the soldier in this epic seven-part documentary series, taken from the standpoint of four American cities, Sacramento, CA, Mobile, AL, Waterbury, CT and Luverne, MN, and the stories of the GI’s shipped overseas from there.
And when it came to compiling the soundtrack to The War, Burns thought just as much outside of the box as he had done when putting together the film. Rather than rolling out the predictable array of Andrews Sisters, Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey chestnuts we’ve heard numerous times before and have since become virtually the World War II soundtrack (some of which, however, appear within the supplementary discs on the deluxe box version of this set), the core soundtrack to The War paints a darker, more ghostly portrait that stands parallel to the many dark themes and imagery covered in the miniseries.
Sure, you have music from such staple recording artists of the era as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Benny Goodman, featured here. But Burns chose the more minimalist and stark selections from their respective catalogs, most notably Bing’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”, an outstanding, thoughtful duet with guitar legend Les Paul that surely brought tears to many an eye in American household who had a loved one fighting overseas. Or in lieu of their more jumpier numbers, the choice of more lower key numbers in the Goodman, Basie and Ellington songbooks like Benny’s clarinet-heavy “Wang Wang Blues”, the Count’s spare “How Long Blues” and Duke’s plaintive ballroom slow burner “Solitude” really complement the dramatic tone set by the more classical-based selections on the soundtrack from Yo-Yo Ma and Aaron Copland.
And then there’s Wynton Marsalis. Perennially known over the course of his three-decade career as the corniest member of the Marsalis jazz dynasty, he continues to impress as Ken Burns’ go-to guy for soundtrack composition, as previously exemplified on his deftly underrated score to Burns’ 2004 documentary on boxing legend Jack Johnson, which fused ballroom, folk and blues to create a haunting, and dare I say, experimental sonic landscape that he continues to explore on his pieces on The War soundtrack, particularly on the strange and beautiful “Movin’ Back”, which could easily be mistaken for a Tom Waits instrumental piece if you weren’t bothering to read the credits. Perhaps it’s the sound of Marsalis paying penance for completely overlooking the likes of Sun Ra and Art Ensemble of Chicago and even Miles Davis’ electric era while serving as Burns’ music supervisor on his extremely off-kilter jazz documentary miniseries earlier in the decade. Whatever the case may be, it is certainly better than what Wynton was doing in the ‘80s, that’s for damn sure.
As far as Norah Jones’ much-balyhooed rendition of Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem”, while completely lovely in its sentiments, it is a bit of a snoozer to be honest; a drab piano ballad that turns this heartwrenching homage to the American GI into a throwaway track from her debut album, Come Away With Me. Now if they sanctioned Katharine Whalen from the Squirrel Nut Zippers for this theme that would have made more sense, given her uncanny knack to bringing it back to that era with her Billie Holiday-esque voice. Unfortunately, it’s not 1996, and only she had so much star power in the wake of the Zippers’ novelty appeal in the mainstream.
It’s a very sad thing to see an entire generation of people die off before our eyes. Something like a thousand or so citizens of that “Greatest Generation” pass away on a daily basis, or at least that’s what the statistics say. Some of them are our parents or grandparents, some our great grandparents, or our uncles and aunts. In the last three years alone, I lost two beloved great uncles and a great aunt, all of whom played a crucial role in The War effort of the 1940s. All that’s left of my grandfather’s seven siblings is my Uncle Mike, who was the baby of the family and is now pushing 80. These were folks who all had a highly significant role in my upbringing, and in the way I view the aspects of family and security and ethical decision-making as I get older and wiser and rapidly approach 40.
And to reiterate NBC’s Brian Williams’ sentiments, Ken Burns has indeed constructed a beautiful media monument to them, both in the form of this stunning documentary series and the soundtrack that accompanies it. The music of The War was compiled in a way that seems as though its primary purpose is to make the listener weep. And nobody on earth is more worthy of our collective tears than our loved ones from the “Greatest Generation”.