Whenever director Robert Trachtenberg tells people he's made a film about Bing Crosby, he says, "The overwhelming response is, 'He's the guy who hit his kids.'" The actor-crooner's Daddy Dearest image was shaped by the 1983 tell-all memoir from son Gary. But Trachtenberg believes Bing Crosby: Rediscovered, his latest project for American Masters (Tuesday at 8/7c on PBS), will remind viewers that despite his flaws, Crosby is one of the 20th century's most influential pop culture figures.
The baritone was the first to develop a singing style with electronic amplification in mind and brought subtlety and sophistication to pop music in the 1930s. His 41 No. 1 records, hit radio show and Road movies with Bob Hope made him America's first multimedia phenomenon. For viewers who grew up with Crosby's bland Christmas TV specials that aired in the 1960s and '70s, Trachtenberg says the performer's early years will be a revelation. "I thought of him as an old man in the cardigan," he says. "The Crosby we need is the relaxed cool, hip Crosby." Trachtenberg shared some insights about his subject with The Biz.
TV Guide Magazine: Bing Crosby died in 1977 and we will really haven't heard much about him outside of his son's book in the 1980s. How did his widow and surviving children from his second marriage let such a giant star fade from public memory?
Robert Trachtenberg: Bing had taught them: "Keep your head low, keep under the radar don't draw attention to yourself." So when he died, they thought he was beloved, he was an institution, and that was enough. By their own admission, they were wrong. They also thought the music would live on its own. They didn't know they had to be more proactive, which they are now, luckily. When Frank Sinatra died, his family had a plan in place pretty quickly and they had been very smart in merchandising his name and image.
TV Guide Magazine: Was it hard to get the trust of the family? How did you get them to understand that you were going to tell the complete story?
Trachtenberg: The good thing about American Masters is the subject's heirs don't have editorial approval. The people who run the estate for the Crosbys showed them my films on Cary Grant and Gene Kelly, where some sensitive issues were touched on. They were like "he can do it. He's the guy." Truly, they couldn't have been nicer. They wanted the truth out there because it's been 30 plus years of just misinformation. They wanted it cleared up.
TV Guide Magazine: Even before Gary's book, Crosby talked about how he was a harsh disciplinarian.
Trachtenberg: A couple of people have now come forward, including Bing's daughter Mary in the movie, and said Gary embellished the abuse for the publisher or for the press. We show it in the film. Bing never hid from the public what was going on. He gave interviews where he said, "Something has gone wrong, and I've been a terrible father. I've tried really hard and I don't know. Essentially, I'm a failure as a father with the first group of boys."
TV Guide Magazine: In terms of his own career, Crosby seems like he was pretty laid back. He was arguably more influential than Sinatra. But Sinatra really eclipsed him in terms of being the representative talent of that generation.
Trachtenberg: They weren't the same generation because Bing's height was the '30s and '40s. Then Sinatra really kicked in during the '50s. In a way, the mantle had been passed to Sinatra and he ran with it.
TV Guide Magazine: But as a singer, Sinatra gets a lot more respect than Bing Crosby.
Trachtenberg: The hard truth is Sinatra took more care with his arrangements by hooking up with Nelson Riddle and all those great arrangers that he used on his albums. He was more involved. With Bing, there was a real natural gift. He loved to harmonize with these other people but he just didn't take that much care with the arrangements.
TV Guide Magazine: It's great that the film includes a deep dive into "The Little Drummer Boy" duet Crosby did with David Bowie on a Christmas special. Growing up, we all thought that clip was hilarious.
Trachtenberg: I thought it was hilarious. The funny thing about that is everyone thinks it's hilarious and camp. Then they watch it, and they're like, "They're actually really good together." Bowie did it because his mom loved Bing Crosby.
TV Guide Magazine: The interesting revelation in the film is that Bowie refused to sing "Little Drummer Boy" and the producers had to write special material for him on the spot. Yet his part sounds like a traditional Christmas hymn.
Trachtenberg: Exactly. It's a real tribute to those guys and their musicianship and their ability to work together.