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'Bing Crosby: Rediscovered' review: New voice for an old crooner

"American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered" premieres on Tuesday,

"American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered" premieres on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014 at 8 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings) on PBS. Credit: AP

WHAT IT'S ABOUT With a trove of clips, some never seen before -- Crosby's archives were opened for this film -- and many interviews, including with second wife Kathryn and children Mary, Harry and Nathaniel, this is a complete personal and professional biography of the last century's most successful "multimedia" entertainer, who died in 1977.

MY SAY Crosby was actually "rediscovered" -- or at least rescued -- by Gary Giddins' 2001 biography, "A Pocketful of Dreams," which began to course-correct an impression of the 20th century's most popular singer that had taken hold by the beginning of the 21st.

Specifically: The voice of "White Christmas" . . . Bob Hope's comic sparring partner . . . the affable Oscar winner of "Going My Way" . . . and otherwise once among the country's most beloved figures . . . was in fact musically square and personally cold.

"Square" Crosby was not. He was one of the great naturals, whose phrasing and vocal warmth revolutionized popular music. That "cold" rap was harder to shake. Crosby's own son, Gary, published a brutal memoir in 1983 that recalled a distant, unloving father, while the subsequent suicides of two other sons, Lindsay and Dennis (in '89 and '91), appeared to be its terribly tragic coda.

Tuesday's "American Masters" by Robert Trachtenberg -- who has produced other "Masters" films on Cary Grant, Mel Brooks and Gene Kelly -- essentially completes the course correction. It's a warm, genial and generous portrait that largely gets the priorities straight: Crosby made (and continues to make) a great many people happy, and lifted the nation's morale during World War II. He was immensely generous to other icons -- Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, to name just three -- while the man on screen essentially seemed to be the same one in life.

Daddy Dearest? He makes no appearance, nor (for that matter) does much insight into what led to the strained relations with his children from his first marriage to Dixie Lee, who died in 1952. (Alcohol abuse by the parents is cited.) Instead, this film judges him to have been "our most authentic icon . . . humble and steady" while offering no evidence to the contrary.


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