Gershwin's life: fascinatin' rhythms

American Masters: George Gershwin Remembered PBS, Monday, 9-10:30 p.m. (check local listings) When Todd Duncan first heard the opening bars of ``Porgy and Bess,'' it was ``so foreign, it sounded like chopsticks,'' he says. But when the song ``Summertime'' followed, he adds, ``I thought I was in heaven.''

The remarks of Mr. Duncan - who played the first Porgy in Gershwin's great folk opera - are a sample of the best this often engrossing and informative TV program has to offer. The recollections are firsthand, vividly recalled, and they illustrate the initial shock - followed by quick love - many early listeners felt for the gritty lyricism of a sublime Gershwin number like ``Summertime.''

Gershwin - as a composer and as a man - has proved an irresistible subject for TV shows. His immigrant background and quintessentially American success - with its rich legacy of songs and longer works - is both accessible and challenging to document. There's so much of it, and it's almost all so appealing. But the subject tends to remain elusive, as do so many creative people whose significance isn't necessarily to be found in the details of their lives. Although in the end this show doesn't really come any closer to explaining Gershwin, it does an impressively comprehensive job of surveying Gershwin's career as a whole. A vast range of materials is blended - sometimes masterfully - in a serious-minded but entertaining stream of popular history whose hoppy pace seems to reflect Gerhwin's own potent rhythms.

Most of this is familiar, but the show does give it vitality and context. How right it seems to hear the wail of the opening clarinet from ``Rhapsody in Blue'' as we see old shots of the New York cityscape while hearing of the Gershwin family's arrival from Russia. There are wonderfully evocative stills of early New York - tradesmen, the Brooklyn Bridge, pushcart-filled streets. You can almost smell the city, hear the dense mix of noise, feel the electricity from the hot streets running up your legs. Well-placed details color the outline - like the fact George was known as ``Cheesecake'' from the time his dad was a baker.

We hear his sister tell of how the family gasped when they bought a piano and then heard George rattle off tunes he'd already secretly learned outside the home. And when we see a clip of George himself improvising his own ``I Got Rhythm'' on the piano, the screen fairly smokes with creative rhythmic energy.

This mosaic gives an idea not only of the scope of Gershwin's life and work - New York and Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley and musical comedies, popular songs and serious concert works - but of how his music invaded American culture with so many interesting and memorable songs that it would be misleading to cite just a few. ``Rhapsody in Blue's'' success in Carnegie Hall, for instance, opened up the concert stage to American music, according to the program. Before that ``you had to be European or dead.'' The anecdotes and recollections - from relatives, friends, colleagues, critics - seem inexhaustible: home movies in Hollywood and Europe, show posters, clips from movie versions of Gershwin musicals or of the composer himself.

The best analysis comes from Michael Feinstein - the gifted singer-pianist who's currently ushering in a new awareness of the Gershwin period - and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. They take apart Gershwin's musical structure to explain what makes it so different, so admirable harmonically and structurally. At a few other points the show could have used just a little more probing, could have afforded to check its breathless plunge onward to follow up a particularly interesting point or two. But in general it's a rewarding look at one of the most interesting figures in popular culture.

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