Culture > Video

Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built


Issue: "Saving Isaac," Nov. 10, 2007

Subject: American popular music, 1947-2006.

Cautions: The young, bawdy Bette Midler; Led Zeppelin's manager on a tirade.

Worldview: That America's greatest contribution to world peace may turn out to be the blues and its offshoots.

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Overall quality: Of the making of "rockumentaries" there appears to be no end, but this one, serving as it does as both an Ahmet Ertegun biography and a history of 20th-century America, earns its place.

The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show

Subject: Sixty-six performances circa 1969-1971 featuring Johnny Cash and 35 of his legendary guests (Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard, et al.).

Worldview: That one way of being in the world yet not of it is to weave heartfelt gospel performances into an ostensibly secular popular-music TV show.

Overall quality: Riveting-one seldom-seen vintage performance after another, with humorous and insightful interviews as segues.

Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror

Subject: Fifteen acoustic and two notoriously electric live Bob Dylan performances from the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965.

Worldview: That, then as now, a sense of humor or at least the absurd (of which Dylan's "going electric" was, on one level, a manifestation) poses a threat to the suffocating smugness of the left.

Overall quality: As technically well preserved as historically important, with an interview with director Murray Lerner providing context.

Ramones: It's Alive 1974-1996

Subject: Over 100 (mostly) live performances from America's pre-eminent punks.

Cautions: Joey Ramone's expletive-filled response to an object-throwing fan; not the juvenile-delinquency anthems, which are, as the bonus interviews confirm, "tongue in cheek."

Worldview: That even without hit albums or singles a band can conquer the world through non-stop touring.

Overall quality: Fast, funny, and furious, with the high-quality, professionally shot footage compensating for the raw, amateur, hand-held clips.

Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story

Subject: Memphis soul music, 1957-1976.

Worldview: That America has the half-black, half-white instrumental quartet Booker T. and the MG's (and the singers on whose recordings they performed) to thank for the interracial harmony that made integration possible.

Overall quality: A deft mix of interviews, performance footage, and photos, rendered bittersweet by concluding with Stax Records' collapse into bankruptcy and its resurrection more as an institution than as a living entity.


Written and directed by Susan Steinberg, Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built (Atlantic) reveals the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun to have been a real-life pop-music Zelig. Instrumental in signing, promoting, and sometimes composing for over 50 years' worth of best-selling acts (the A-list: Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins), Ertegun arguably exerted a greater influence over American pop culture than any other musical figure.

The deeper value of Steinberg's documentary lies in its tracing of Ertegun's roots. The son of a devoutly Muslim Turkish diplomat, Ertegun fell in love with America via jazz. So it was that upon his arrival in the United States as a seventh-grader he was as immune to the nation's residual racism as he was to anti-American hostility. Whether the music of Ertegun's most successful latter-day discovery, Kid Rock, will engender similar good will among today's less diplomatically inclined Muslims is less certain.


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