PBS is generating a lot of to-do for Hemingway, the next big thing from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, arriving next week. Hemingway, the publicity tells us, “reveals the brilliant, ambitious, charismatic, and complicated man behind the myth, and the art he created.” But what if I told you there was another film about a brilliant, ambitious, charismatic, and complicated artist also premiering on PBS, and you could watch it in one-fourth the time it will take to learn about Papa Hemingway’s miserable life? How much would you pay??
Relax, you don’t have to pay a thing — it’s PBS! (But you really should support your local station for five bucks a month, which gets you the excellent PBS Passport streamer.) The film I’m referring to is Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story, premiering April 2 on American Masters. And it’s merely the most amazing whatever-happened-to that you’ve seen in a long time.
It’s a retrospective on the career of the most famous bandleader of his generation (with the possible exception of Lawrence Welk) as told by the man himself and the people who know him best. And it catches you up on the ridiculously active life of Doc Severinsen, who until the pandemic was criss-crossing the country, blowing his trumpet, leading the band, soaking up adulation, getting on a plane, and doing it all over again in another town, 40-plus weeks a year… in his nineties.
For those of you unlucky enough to be born after the Tonight Show’s heyday, Doc Severinsen played trumpet in the band from 1951 (yes, the Steve Allen version) until 1957, went away, laid down some great LPs like this one that I’m grooving to as I write this review, then rejoined the band when Johnny Carson took over in 1962. That band is still on full display every night on Antenna TV, along with Doc’s radiant wardrobe and his irreverent wit.
It’s one thing to headline a record, quite another to lead a first-rate group of musicians, keeping them in line, and being able to ad-lib when the most famous TV host in America throws to you. But Doc did it, re-inventing himself, becoming the flamboyant sidekick who could get away with saying, and wearing, just about anything around Johnny. This took nerve, as Mr. Carson made careers and broke quite a few along the way too. But Doc inserted himself into the spotlight with seemingly effortless ease, becoming to the Tonight Show what Ringo was to the Beatles — a first-rate performer whose musical skills got overshadowed by his personality.
Most of the early Tonight Show years were destroyed by nincompoops at NBC in New York, but once Johnny got to L.A. he saved all the tapes, which is how we have this sublime solo by Doc from a telecast in 1973:
And here he is, about four years ago, still hitting the high notes:
Johnny handed the keys back to NBC in 1992, but Doc has just kept going, long after everyone — including his third wife — thought he might hang it up. The question the film tries to answer, quite naturally, is why. For this the co-directors of Never Too Late, Kevin S. Bright and Jeff Consiglio, use interviews with the man himself, loved ones, and former members of the Tonight Show band. Most revealing are the interviews with two fellow high-wattage trumpeters, Chris Botti and Arturo Sandoval, who point out that the trumpet is an impossible instrument that involves at least two hours of daily practice to stay in form. It would be so easy to quit. After the Tonight Show ended, he and his then-wife retired to Mexico, whereupon Doc picked up with the local band and started touring with them.
What kind of person blows his brains out — figuratively, not literally like Hemingway did — trying to coax high notes out of his horn, day after day from the age of seven onward? Yes, Doc grew up in the Great Depression, which he says you never forget. And it was a tough town in rural Oregon where Doc grew up, spindly son of a dentist, discovering early on that the cornet and trumpet were his ticket to a better life. But that was eighty years ago. As Sandoval, a friend who occasionally performs alongside Doc, puts it in Never Too Late, there’s something a little cuckoo about the trumpet player.
Rather than make the Tonight Show years a chapter in this lively doc-umentary (ha, get it?), the filmmakers continually return to it as a touchstone. There are clips of Doc bantering with Johnny and leading the magnificent Tonight Show band pretty much from start to finish here. The point is not to keep pointing out how working for Johnny was the single thing Doc will be remembered for — obviously it will — but that in the nearly 29 years since Johnny signed off for good, Doc has never stopped being Doc. He still dresses in expensive cowboy boots and gaudy attire (although the Seventies were a domain of gaudiness unto themselves). He still expects to be the central organizing principle wherever he goes, whether it’s leading a master class in north Texas, performing solo with the Kansas City Symphony, or headlining a concert in New England.
At the same time, it’s clear Severinsen has evolved from his heyday of heavy drinking and general restlessness. He’s found true love very late in life. He’s learned things about himself and is trying to live his best life right now. Family members (including Emily, his third ex-wife) attest to that.
When Ernest Hemingway was 60, he was nearing his coda in life. At 60, Doc Severinsen was merely ending one movement and moving on to the next. It’s more like an extended uptempo improvisation that just keeps going. His mother lived to 100, so it could keep going a while. In a recent New York Times interview, Doc seemed raring to get out on the road again. And that makes Never Too Late just the kind of kick in the butt that younger people, like me, need at the end of a long, bleak season.
Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story premieres on PBS April 2nd at 9:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.