The Midnight Special Three-DVD Set Review: Relive Friday Night at Any Time

StarVista and Time Life have released another collection of clips of The Midnight Special, a late-night variety show that aired on NBC from 1972 to 1981, on three DVDs. To make things nice and confusing, there’s no subtitle to help identify this set from other Midnight Special sets.

As S. Edward Sousa described previously in his review of a six-disc release, which also had no subtitle,

“The Midnight Special…was the Friday night follow-up to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, packing a 90-minute time slot with the era’s biggest names in rock, pop. and disco. Unlike its predecessors or competitors, The Midnight Special was rare to rely on pre-taped or lip-synched footage—only present in the final season—but instead filmed the vast majority of performances live on a Burbank soundstage in front of a studio audience. Week after week they corralled together a cadre of artists across an array of genres for the sheer purpose of entertainment, for the sheer purpose of alleviating the decade’s intensities.”

The first two discs in this set also present “artists across an array of genres.” Disc One opens with a 1980 episode featuring singer-songwriters Barry Manilow playing his first major hit, “Mandy,” and Jim Croce performing “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels).” The 1976 episode has a dance theme with Wild Cherry playing their funky music, Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night,” and deejay Rick Dees’ novelty hit “Disco Duck.”

Mixing up the formula for the 4/22/77 show, artists performed together. Starting things off, Van Morrison was joined on a jazzy rendition of “Moondance” by George Benson, Etta James, Dr. John, Carlos Santana, and Tom Scott. Later, James and the good Doctor teamed up for a great blues number on “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and then Santana brought his Latin stylings to Benson’s smooth-jazz hit “Breezin'”.

On the fourth anniversary special from ’77, Earth, Wind & Fire played “Shining Star” and were obviously hip to what was going on in the streets as they stopped singing and rapped the end of the song. On the same episode, Aretha Franklin belted out “Something He Can Feel” wearing a crazy knitted outfit with a bikini top that has no support that would have been more distracting were it not for her great talent.

Four bonus performances are available, featuring Michael Murphey, Seals & Crofts, REO Speedwagon, and Charlie Daniels Band. There’s no mention what episode they are taken from, so use the internet or ask a music nut what dates these songs were on the charts.

In addition there are two bonus features on Disc One, an interview with George Benson talking about his career and playing with artists on the episode, making a hit record and another with series producer Burt Sugarman.

Disc two contains episodes with line-ups featuring Steely Dan and The Spinners; Glen Campbell, Natalie Cole, and Heart; and Dolly Parton and Frankie Valli. The Bonus Songs are by Donna Summer doing a memorable “Love to Love you Baby” with Egyptian-themed costumes, Gloria Gaynor (obviously “I Will Survive), and Christopher Cross.

The third disc presents comedians. George Carlin is his usual brilliant self. Richard Pryor is amusing, and Redd Foxx is very funny. The rest are less successful and make the disc a struggle to get through, which is unexpected considering how well known many of the names are. Billy Crystal offers little to laugh at and does a Chinese stereotype that he likely wouldn’t do in today’s climate. Gray-haired Steve Martin from 1973 is not the rock-star comic he would become five years later but he does play the banjo, an Earl Scruggs tune. Joan Rivers is paired with Mac Davis and tries working around him rather than with him, seemingly annoyed at his presence. The rest are completely forgettable. Except for Andy Kaufman, who closes out the disc with his trademark childish ridiculousness as he puts on a puppet show with his limited ventriloquist skills. There’s a bonus David Steinberg interview where he talks about himself and some of the others who appear in the set.

The Midnight Special three-disc set offers a great snapshot of a bygone era of entertainment.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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