Dusty Springfield – Once Upon a Time: 1964-1969 (Reelin’ in the Years, 2010)
One Upon a Time: 1964-1969 is one of four documentaries released as part of a five-DVD British Invasion box set by Reelin’ in the Years Productions. Of the four artists profiles (which also include Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Small Faces and Herman’s Hermits), Dusty Springfield made perhaps the largest artistic impact on America. Herman’s Hermits had more hits, and the Small Faces were a bigger influence on the mod movement in the UK, but Springfield’s key works, “I Only Want to Be With You,” Bacharach & David’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and especially “Son of a Preacher Man” harbored a soulfulness that none of her UK peers could match. She exuded class in her demure, self-contained dance moves, elegant frilled blouses and long skirts.
As with many pop stars of the era, Springfield’s television appearances mixed lip-synching and live performances. Unlike most others, though, her lip-synching was truly expressive. While others simply mimed their vocals, Springfield acted them out with her movements, doing with her body and face what she’d already done with her voice in the studio. Better yet, she was a great live singer, as evidenced by a terrific 1965 performance of “All Cried Out” on the Ed Sullivan show and 1966 NME poll winner’s performances of “In the Middle of Nowhere” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” She exhorts the crowd while singing covers of Betty Everett’s “I Can’t Hear You” and Otis Redding’s “Shake,” and without a monitor speaker in sight, delivers pitch-perfect vocals.
Springfield had greater chart success in the UK than the US, but even songs that failed to conquer the states, such as “Some of Your Lovin’” and Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” were strong enough to lodge in the ears of American fans. Even her lower-charting US hits, such as “Stay Awhile” (perfectly covered in 1978 by Rachel Sweet) remain familiar. In 1968 Springfield took her singing to a new level with the sessions that resulted in the album Dusty in Memphis and the single “Son of a Preacher Man.” Amid players and producers whose music had provided the template for her own recordings, she sang with a reserve that spoke to her underlying strength rather than the explicit power she could unleash. Her gospel phrasings and confessional tone gave the hit an intimacy with which listeners connected on a deep, emotional level. Amazingly, the single only reached #10 and became her last hit until a 1987 teaming with the Pet Shop Boys on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
This 69-minute documentary includes sixteen performances, each of which (and four more) can be seen in full in the DVD’s extras. There’s also a 24-page booklet that’s stuffed with liner notes by Annie Randall, photos, ephemera and credits. Period interview clips with Springfield from 1964, 1971 and 1978 and contemporary interviews with two of her backup singers (Madeline Bell and Simon Bell) and Burt Bacharach provide interesting personal reflections. The details of Springfield’s anti-apartheid contract clause (for shows in South Africa) are particularly enlightening. The performances are terrific, but, in the end, the documentary doesn’t tell enough of Springfield’s story, and fails to explain (as the liner notes do) why her commercial success faded at the end of the ‘60s. This is worth seeing, particularly for fans, but if you’re interested more generally in the British Invasion, the volumes on the Small Faces and Herman’s Hermits are better documentaries.