DVD Review: The Greatest Ears In Town: The Arif Mardin Story

Arif Mardin’s responsible for so much of the soundtrack of your life. But odds are that you haven’t a clue who he was. The music producer wasn’t a self-promoter with a rabid cult base. He wasn’t unsung. He received his accolades with top hits, platinum albums and an armful of Grammys that included being named Best Producer in 1975 and 2002. What songs did he put in your ears? He was the man behind Bette Midler’s “Wings Beneath My Wings.” He talked back for the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talking,” The Rascals’ “Groovin’,” Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” and hundreds of other hits. The Greatest Ears In Town: The Arif Mardin Story puts his life into context as he works on what would turn out to be his final album.

The documentary opens with Mardin in the midst of creating an album featuring all-star singers performing songs that he had written over the course of his life. The music follows his journey that started in Istanbul, Turkey. His work is discovered by Quincy Jones who got Arif a scholarship to study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Eventually this led to a job at Atlantic Records where at first he just did office business. But after charting arrangements for a band playing a company party, Ahmet Erteg√ľn put him in the studio to work with his acts. Even though Arif is more about jazz, he found himself behind the boards for the Rascals. While he might not have been a fan of pop and rock, Arif had a touch. Their collaboration produced “Good Lovin’,” “People Got to Be Free” and “A Beautiful Morning.” Not too shabby of a start. But his career goes further in the studio. He’s producing Aretha Franklin. He made The Average White Band score high with the funky instrumental “Pick Up the Pieces.” He’s gets Barry Gibb to break out the falsetto for “Nights on Broadway” which evolves into the Bee Gees sound on Saturday Night Fever. This turns out to be one of the tension points in Arif’s career since the Bee Gees’ parent label had split from Atlantic Records before that massive soundtrack was created. Atlantic wouldn’t allow Arif to stay with the company if he entered the studio to tweak the sound on “Stayin’ Alive.” Oddly enough, Arif did get a Grammy for the soundtrack since it had his version of “Jive Talkin’.” But what’s amazing about Arif’s career is that he had so much major work to do. His finger slipping on a button created the Hip Hop classic “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan. Even when he was forced into retirement by Atlantic, Arif didn’t shuffle off into nostalgia. He went into the studio with Norah Jones and made Come Away With Me that swept the Grammys and sold 25 million copies worldwide.

After this amazing career, Arif is back in the studio calling in plenty of old friends for one more song. Bette Midler, Dr. John, the Average White Band, Carly Simon, Norah Jones, Darryl Hall and others visit the studio to sing his songs. This element of the film lets us see Arif in action. How he was able to get the best from the performers without being an audio terror. This insight to how he really worked in the studio adds so much to the film. This isn’t just merely a case of famous faces gushing about Arif’s studio genius. Viewers get full access to his attitude in the control room. While Arif was mostly known for arranging for others, he gets to take a piano solo on a short piece. He struggles to make his fingers play to the standard set by his ears. The film was co-directed by Arif’s son Joe who was also helping his dad produce that album. This makes the film incredibly touching as Arif struggles to finish his final work. In barely ninety minutes we say hello and goodbye to a great man.

While they are bigger named producers in the music industry a majority of them have a short time at the top. They get stuck in an era or just noted for a sound. Arif’s career stretches from the British Invasion to the arrival of Napster. The Greatest Ears in Town isn’t the usual music bio since he didn’t get lured into the rock and roll life. There’s no horrifying tales of Arif and Ozzy. He was a family man whose only studio vice was a well deserved martini that was called the “Mardini” by those who couldn’t get enough. Even after he’s retired from Atlantic, he’s back on top of the charts and the Grammy stage with Norah Jones. This movie documents a man who loved music and had an amazing ability to adapt and innovate with the times. This is the kind of documentary that needs to be shown in music schools as to what a student should strive to emulate. After watching this film, you’ll want to start an audiophile cult dedicated to Arif.

The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The movie was mixes old and new video so there’s a bit of a gritty feel. The audio is Dolby Digital stereo. The music sounds fine.

EPK (5:40) is the electronic press kit for the movie and record.

Film Noir (1:57) lets Arif explain how “So Many Nights” was a theme to a crime film never made.

Mardinis, Tabloids, Turks and Doorknobs
(2:38) lets Arif explain his special recipe. He has a reason for his olive choice. We also get a little insight into his sense of humor. There’s talk of the Turkish influence at Atlantic.

“No Way Out” Alt Edit (5:29) is a longer version of Nicki Parrott singing in the studio.

“Separate Lives” – Phil Collins
(1:14) is the second time Arif and Phil worked on a soundtrack song.

Not “All My Friends Are Here” (3:51) has other projects Arif was producing in his final year. He was a busy man.

Lunch with Chaka – Joe Finishes the Album
(9:00) is a large segment cut from the film. She visits the Mardif family. There’s great clips of Arif dancing with Chaka. Joe goes down to Miami to work with Barry Gibb.

The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story shines a light on an elite record producer. The film is a celebration of all his hits and his long run as a hitmaker. It’s amazing how many songs he touched in his career.

Shelter Island presents The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story. Directed by: Joe Mardin and Doug Brio. Starring: Arif Mardin, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Norah Jones and Barry Gibb. Running Time: 103 minutes. Released: November 12, 2013.