Just saying the name Barry Manilow out loud tends to inspire laughter. No offense meant to his fans, but the guy long ago became a musical punchline to most folks under the age of, say, 60 years old. And while it's true that at one time in his venerable career, he wrote the songs the whole world sang, today his music is primarily relegated to elevators, shotgun weddings and karaoke nights at Hooters.
But I gotta hand it to the guy -- he's a tireless performer, he knows what his audience wants to hear, and he sells even the hoariest of Vegas cliches like his life depended on it, and as such, "Manilow Live!" is a pretty accurate representation of the Barry Experience. It's like something you'd see in the Coconut Grove room at the Tropicana. Way beyond corny, he sings the hits, of course, but also entertains the grannies with "improvised" comedy routines, incredibly awkward sexual innuendo (don't any of these women know Barry has been the gayest act ever since his bathhouse days with Bette Midler?) and, in a moment that has to be seen to be believed, performs renditions of more recent pop hits by Rod Stewart and Madonna completely on the accordion. Where is Weird Al when you need him?
To Manilow's great credit, unlike most modern pop acts, he is a consummate musician. Backed by a 30-piece orchestra and more than a dozen showgirls, you can tell he's done this act like, oh, a couple of million times now. There is not a single bum note, and his ability to turn a phrase is certainly up there with the best of the classic songwriter-lyricists. "Manilow Live!" is certain to convert absolutely no one over to the dark side of Manilow devotion, but it's a pleasant enough evening of inoffensive, campy pop music. And your grandma will love it.
The track list of death includes: 01. Could It Be Magic? / 02. Somewhere in the Night / 03. Tryin' to Get the Feeling / 04. Can't Smile Without You / 05. Bandstand Boogie / 06. Mandy / 07. Even Now / 08. Daybreak / 09. Flight of the Bumblebee / 10. All the Time / 11. New York City Rhythm / 12. Every Single Day / 13. I Am Your Child / 14. This One's for You / 15. Sinatra Overture / 16. Chicago (My Kind of Town) / 17. That's Life / 18. When October Goes / 19. Weekend in New England / 20. Copacabana / 21. I Made It Through the Rain / 22. One Voice/I Write the Songs (Medley) / 23. Stars in the Night
The transfer for 'Manilow Live!' is one of the weakest I've seen yet on a high-def music title. This is an older master, dating back a few years now, and it shows.
Presented in 1.78:1 and 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 video, this transfer very hit or miss. Colors are nice, with the Vegas lighting and stageset fairly resplendent in vibrant hues, but unfortunately, the image is often smeary and fuzzy, especially in mid- to wide-shots. Contrast is also wonky -- flat at certain times, and a bit too bright at others. Close-ups fare the best, boasting noticeable clarity and detail, but once the camera pulls back it all gets a bit soft. Compression artifacts are not huge issues, but there is some noticeable noise in the shadows. This one won't win any awards.
'Manilow Live!" gets two soundtrack options, both in 4.0 surround: Dolby TrueHD and 640kbps Dolby Digital-Plus. (Oddly, the disc also offers optional Japanese subtitles only. Guess Barry is huge in Japan!?)
In all honesty, flipping back and forth between the two tracks revealed few discernible differences. The only weird thing is that the Dolby track is recorded at a much higher volume level, but once I matched levels, things fell into place. Bass enjoys the biggest upgrade on the TrueHD, but I kinda found the mix flat on both tracks since it lacks a dedicated subwoofer channel. Also sorely missed is a center -- Manilow's vocals sound inorganic coming out of the left and right front speakers, making the whole affair sound largely like stereo. Surround effects are reserved solely for crowd noise and a bit of reverb. Even the TrueHD track can't really help much with such limited dynamics.
There is only one supplement, but it's a whopper. Barry Manilow himself contributes a screen-specific audio commentary. No, he doesn't sing, but he does give us the lowdown on every single song. Did you know that "Mandy" originally started life as an uptempo number? That his most popular song in concert is -- wait for it -- "Copacabana?" Or that "One Voice" was composed entirely from a dream? And Manilow seems to get bored quite quickly, almost nodding off after the first third song. I myself nodded off soon after, and only woke up right before the finale.
I'm obviously not the intended demographic for 'Manilow Live!' I don't watch the Oxygen channel, I don't shop at JCPenney, and I've never had blue hair. As for this HD DVD release, it's sub-par. The video and audio seem quite dated, and even a so-so audio commentary from He Who Writes the Songs can't elevate this package. This is a fine document of a Barry Manilow live show, but hardly a sterling high-definition release.