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Deconstructing Dino
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Deconstructing Dino

New documentary 'Dean Martin: King of Cool' provides a thorough look at its subject, but few new insights.

For decades, Dean Martin has eluded biographers, largely because he eluded all who knew him. Perhaps 20th century America’s most protean entertainer, Martin ruled Las Vegas, dominated variety television, starred in a plethora of (sporadically amusing) movies, and crooned iconic hits. Like Frank Sinatra, he embodied the American ideal of self-invention, ascending to tremendous cultural heights from unassuming roots. But unlike Sinatra, his stage persona was mostly illusory; a facade created to distance others from his deeper self. The real Dean Martin (or Dino Paul Crocetti) was fully understood by no one, even among those closest to him, and this evasiveness is the primary concern of a new documentary that attempts to chronicle his life. Unfortunately, although director Tom Donahue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool is an earnest and comprehensive biography, it reveals little about its subject that similar portraits have not previously established.

Donahue’s film combines archival footage of Martin and newly conducted interviews with those who knew him to explore his rise from working-class Ohio boxer to West Coast superstar. As is often inexplicably the case with modern music documentaries, contemporary celebrities who had no affiliation with Martin are also interviewed throughout, and predictably, they have nothing insightful to say. Alec Baldwin, Jon Hamm, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA all appear for no apparent reason to offer vague affirmations of Martin’s voice and charisma, despite the fact that anyone willing to view a two-hour documentary about the man will already be quite aware of his abilities. Thankfully, the majority of Donahue’s interviewees—ranging from former road manager Tony Oppedisano to actress Angie Dickinson—recall enjoyable anecdotes and seem happy to be involved. Martin’s daughter, Deanna, is especially delightful, and provides a number of charming memories in the film’s second half.

At the beginning of the documentary, Donahue poses a simple question to his roster of talking heads: “What was Dean’s Rosebud?” Initially, none of them can muster an answer. But by the film’s conclusion, Donahue seemingly hasn’t arrived at one either, even after inspecting the whole of Martin’s life. Donahue’s interviewees repeat that beneath his effortless charm and outgoing manner, Martin was almost unknowable; he concealed his true thoughts in all encounters and seemed to never open up. He was comfortable and outgoing in crowded settings but generally preferred solitude. When hosting parties at his Beverly Hills mansion, he would often retreat to a private room and leave his guests to mingle. And at the hedonistic height of the Rat Pack, he would happily abandon the group’s overnight bacchanals to sleep at a reasonable hour, undeterred by Sinatra’s anger. 

Undoubtedly, Martin’s internal monologue was deeply complex, and Donahue attempts to penetrate it by honing in on particular aspects of his character. We see Martin as a father who adored his children and was happiest at large family gatherings. His acquaintances stress that he valued his fans and delighted in making audiences laugh, while observing that he was less concerned with social climbing than Sinatra and had little time for politics. (A memorable sequence explores how Martin refused to attend John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration after Sammy Davis Jr. was banned for his interracial marriage to actress May Britt.) But certain details are mentioned vaguely while others are scrutinized at length. Martin’s divorce from first wife Elizabeth McDonald,with whom he had four children, receives only a few reserved comments. Later, the documentary suggests that Martin regretted his divroce from second wife Jeanne Bieger and yearned for her in his final years, but this too is only explored to a limited extent despite the promise of greater personal insight. Perhaps Donahue feared appearing indelicate if these subjects were examined too thoroughly, but such restraint in a biography as intimate as this one seems misplaced.

Yet it feels churlish to criticize Donahue for failing to fully solve Martin’s enigma when the documentary is otherwise beautifully presented and perfectly enjoyable. Donahue’s direction is crisp and keeps a brisk pace despite the film’s length, and he strikes an ideal balance between interviews and footage of Martin at home and in performance. Every facet of Martin’s career is at least addressed, from his partnership with Jerry Lewis to the ill-fated Rat Pack reunion tour of the late 1980s, and the archival clips are chosen well enough to provide a rounded representation of his talent. The film is never dry, and maintains a respectful tone without succumbing to blind adulation. 

But typically for such a broad portrait, the film’s coverage of Martin’s art is unbalanced. The Dean Martin Show, his long-running variety series, is covered extensively through a variety of memorable anecdotes. But his breakup with Jerry Lewis, a hugely significant event in the history of pop culture, is skimmed through so rapidly that a casual viewer could easily not understand what occurred. Likewise, although equal time is dedicated to Martin’s musical and acting careers, particular movies, songs, and albums are dissected while others arbitrarily go unmentioned. Careful attention is rightly paid to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, in which Martin delivered arguably his finest performance. But popular films from Martin’s heyday such as Some Came Running, Bells are Ringing, and Rat Pack vehicles Ocean’s 11 and Robin and the 7 Hoods are referenced fleetingly. Of course, these have hardly aged well and were likely of dubious quality at the time, but paying so little attention to any of them is a notable oversight.

Regarding Martin’s musical output, all of his signature songs (“That’s Amore,” “Everybody Loves Somebody,” etc.) are mentioned, and superior though lesser known singles such as “On an Evening in Roma” surface throughout on the film’s soundtrack. Again, however, certain tracks receive greater acknowledgement than others. In a pleasant surprise, Donahue’s interviewees discuss the beautiful “Volare” at length, but “Memories are Made of This,” Martin’s first No. 1 hit which marked a turning point in his career, is barely featured. “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” which flopped as a single on release but has in recent years become Martin’s most popular song through its inclusion on a profusion of soundtracks, also receives little affection despite the curious story of its success. Many of Martin’s best recordings appeared on studio albums and were not released as singles, but these are also neglected. On Capitol Records in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin was at his artistic peak, and the concept albums he created during that time such as Sleep Warm and This Time I’m Swingin’ almost rival Sinatra’s transcendent releases on the label. In the film, these are not recognized, and Martin’s consequential move to Reprise Records (founded by Sinatra) in 1962 where his later hits were recorded is described in little more than a sentence.

Nonetheless, despite the film’s assorted omissions and occasional missteps, it remains slick and compulsive viewing. The real Dean Martin, it is clear, was understood by Dean Martin alone, and no amount of research will likely lead any biographer to his true self. Using the best resource available—those who knew, worked with, and loved Martin—Donahue has produced a thoughtful and comprehensive tribute to a figure who, despite his enigmatic nature, continues to personify coolness. More attention to specific aspects of Martin’s life and artistry would have enhanced the film, and it is unfortunate that for all the effort undertaken by Donahue to complete such an elaborate documentary, only a modicum of new revelations emerge about its subject. But as a guide to the life of an essential American, Dean Martin: King of Cool is suitably sprawling, lively, and uplifting. How lucky can one guy be?

Guy Denton is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and the co-host of "The Wrong Stuff" podcast with Matt Lewis.