Turner Classics' ambitious if somewhat daunting six-CD box
That's Entertainment: The Ultimate Anthology of M-G-M Musicals has it all over its predecessors -- including a more modestly proportioned compilation of MGM musical highlights released back in the late '80s -- in terms of scope, quality, and audio engineering. Indeed, at the time of its release in the mid-'90s, this was easily the most comprehensive overview of a movie studio's music output to be found on CD. Whether one is listening to Jimmy Durante clowning at the piano with Frank Sinatra (from It Happened in Brooklyn) or Lena Horne (backed by Benny Carter and his orchestra) singing "Honeysuckle Rose" from Thousands Cheer, the basses and percussion are deep and booming, the vocals are out in front, and the brasses and horns have the kind of bite that one often associates with high-fidelity recording, more than film soundtracks on home systems. In fairness, not every track here blossoms the same way -- "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" from the movie of the same name, featuring Gene Kelly and Sinatra, is little more than a cute novelty, high resolution or not, and some of the medleys -- especially "Singin' in the Rain" -- that are keyed to the actual That's Entertainment or That's Entertainment, Part 2 movie sequences, are easier to appreciate if you have seen the movies, and it's difficult to imagine anyone buying this set who has not seen both movies a lot more than once. June Allyson gets her moment in the sun ("Thou Swell") on disc one, as do Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart ("Easy to Love"), Clark Gable ("Puttin' on the Ritz"), and Jane Powell, but the best moments belong to the names you would expect, including Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.
Discs one and two take listeners through That's Entertainment's musical highlights, while discs three and four are devoted to That's Entertainment, Pt. 2. In every instance on the material from those movies, the tracks represent complete numbers, rather than the edited excerpts used in the two anthology movies -- and considering that most of the movies represented here predate the late '40s and, thus, never had soundtrack releases of their own, that only enhances the value of this set (one can "square" its value for serious musical buffs). The fifth disc is a direct reissue of the 1994-vintage That's Entertainment, Pt. 3 soundtrack CD. And disc six in this original version of the set ties up some loose ends from all three movies, filling in a few holes that might not have held up as well musically or technically on the earlier discs, but which are still worth hearing. The sound throughout is amazingly consistent given the 60 years covered by the original engineering in some of the material and the need to substitute sources on some of the tracks -- "Easy to Love," for example, is an alternate take found in the vaults. The value of discs one through four is identical, the first two each being filled with enough serious musical value to match the other, and the complete eight-plus-minute "Fascinating Rhythm" from Lady Be Good and "Wedding of the Painted Doll" from The Broadway Melody are among the pleasant surprises here.
One might also note that the sound elements for the new music recordings on That's Entertainment, Pt. 2 seem to be in better condition than those for the first That's Entertainment, despite there being just a few years between them -- in any case, the matching of the 1930s and early-'40s sound to the newer segments is what counts, and those work almost perfectly; it's only on a few moments, such as Judy Garland's entry on "For Me and My Gal" that you get some sense of the actual age of the recordings involved. Disc five was, of course, the only thing here ever originally planned for digital release, originating as it did in 1994 with That's Entertainment, Pt. 3, and it flows the most smoothly. And while no one is going to pretend that disc six, made up of afterthoughts and loose ends as well as material that just couldn't be sequenced with the rest of the set, is a match for what appears before, it does work on its own terms, and it's only in juxtaposition with the rest that it seems at all weak.
On a technical level, one must point out the inevitable weaknesses in a set like this. Most important, there is always going to be some compression on music of any kind recorded before the end of the 1940s, even if it is preserved perfectly, but the Turner Entertainment archivists and engineers have put together a remarkably satisfying body, several hundred artists and tracks strong, covering territory from the 1920s to the 1970s. Secondly, although the musical credentials involved with 99 percent of what's here are impeccable, this was, at root, an effort to make visually stimulating material, so there will be some element missing from the allure of much of what is here, in terms of what it was intended to do. But that doesn't mean that, divorced from the visuals, elements of the music can't blossom in their own right. The whole collection makes for quite a few days' -- even a week's -- worth of listening to be properly absorbed, and is annotated with a 96-page booklet that is as profusely illustrated as it is thoroughly informative. Indeed, when one compares this with the original LP soundtracks for That's Entertainment and That's Entertainment, Part 2, those collections don't even seem to come from the same planet as this set, which is one of the marvels of the box set boom of the mid-'90s; additionally, on an engineering level, this is one of the most ambitious multi-artist sets ever released.
The 1995 edition of the set pleased the audience it was aimed toward, as far as it went, and might even have won over a few converts; the songwriting is so prodigious that's it's difficult not to appreciate individual tracks, one after the other, even if one doesn't happen to be a fan of the musical format. The only caveat is that the relentlessly upbeat exuberance of the performances and performers may be off-putting to some modern fans, and others may find that the depth and seriousness of the effort here runs counter to the light-as-air sensibilities of some of the actual music and movies represented. In 2006, Rhino issued an updated edition of this set, housed in a new package design, in which disc six was completely altered -- in place of the loose ends that comprised the last disc in the original, the last disc in the new set was comprised of outtakes from the MGM vaults, making that set even more alluring, at least for the hardcore collector and enthusiast.
All Music Guide - Bruce Eder