Film: Tuneful Television

The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons DVD package revisits the music of the Woodstock generation

Aug 17, 2005 at 2:06 pm
David Bowie (left) and Dick Cavett share a moment during a vintage episode of The Dick Cavett Show.

A wonderful television moment — an immortal one, maybe — occurs midway through the June 25, 1970, Dick Cavett Show when Janis Joplin asks fellow guest Douglas Fairbanks Jr. if he knew F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Just moments earlier, sitting and regaining breath after performing wrenching, powerfully soulful Blues Rock versions of "Move Over" and "Get It While You Can," Joplin had told Cavett, "I'm a big Fitzgerald freak." Fairbanks, 61 at the time and the well-traveled son of silent-era film star Douglas Fairbanks, recalled knowing him as a schoolboy. But what made a greater impression on him at the time, he says, was meeting playwright J.M. Barrie: "I was thrilled at meeting the man who wrote Peter Pan."

"Don't you wish you could have been a little older and kept a diary of all those meetings?" talk-show host Cavett says.

Actually, DVDs devoted to old television talk and variety shows — like the new, three-disc The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons (Shout! Factory) — are becoming the hi-tech version of such diaries. It isn't merely the historical/nostalgic value of seeing yesterday's celebrities today, although that's important. But it's also the sometimes surreal, sometimes revelatory, always liberating way these shows put together bizarre combinations of guests and let them interact.

And none was better — or more relevant to its tumultuous times — than the literate and culturally aware Dick Cavett Show, which struggled through various primetime and late-night slots on ABC from 1968 to 1974.

ABC never knew what to do with him or his urbane dedication to intelligent conversation, several times canceling his show only to revive it because of protests.

One reason for audience loyalty was because he was so respectful of the emerging phenomenon of Rock superstars. Cavett not only let them sit and talk with more "adult" guests, but also, in the case of ex-Beatle George Harrison or post-Woodstock Festival performers, gave them the run of the show.

This three-disc set features such Rock icons as Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, Sly Stone, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Harrison, Paul Simon and three full programs with — as she would have excitedly said it — JANIS JOPLIN, MAN!

But actually the star here is Cavett. That's why this pakage mostly features full episodes of programs rather than musical excerpts. Occasionally this backfires, as when Elsa Lanchester and Alain Delon prattle on about nothing special long after Wonder has left. But more often it's great, as when the mind-boggling combination of Joplin, Sunset Boulevard's legendary Gloria Swanson and young actress Margot Kidder cheerfully talk about undergarments — or the lack of them. Or when Joplin and Raquel Welch argue about Dennis Hopper.

While no hippie, Cavett was youthful enough to relate — or to fake it. On the famous post-Woodstock show of Aug. 19, 1969, he doesn't even get flustered at the un-bleeped "motherfucker" sung by Jefferson Airplane in "We Can Be Together." That's probably because he was so dazed with enchantment as the young, sweet and dreamily attractive Mitchell sings "Chelsea Morning" and "For Free."

Cavett wasn't perfect. He had a weakness for excessively self-referential cuteness that could rub some rockers (like a seemingly high Sly Stone) the wrong way. But when the stars aligned, his show was magical. You can see it here when a seated Simon debuts his still-in-progress "Still Crazy After All These Years." Or when a shy, hirsute and very funny Harrison in his All Things Must Pass phase jumps in mock horror when Cavett tells him, "Yoko Ono sat in that very chair."

Thanks to DVDs like this, not all of the too-few good television shows of the past must pass. Some can be saved and recognized as treasures. Grade: A-