It should be stated that this 2006 edition of Rhino's six-CD box That's Entertainment: The Ultimate Anthology of MGM Musicals is a prodigious effort, in both its scope and quality, as well as the audio engineering, though it may well frustrate owners of the earlier 1995 edition, which used the same title but had different cover art and a different song lineup, especially on disc six. Indeed, at the time of the latter's release in the mid-'90s, this was easily the most comprehensive overview of a movie studio's music output to be found on CD. For starters, Rhino was the first audio licensee of this material, since the days when MGM had its own record label -- and they weren't always known for being sticklers for quality -- to have access not only to first-generation original audio sources, but, in this instance, restored audio sources. In some instances, this means that one is getting the unmixed music tracks off of the original film recording sessions -- something few people were ever privileged to hear prior to the '90s -- while in other cases, it allows one to hear the mastering elements off of which finished, restored film soundtracks are struck. And in this edition, about a third of the material has been remastered using the more advanced technology available in the subsequent decade, as well as better sources that have been uncovered; and some material, mostly from better-known movies that are now represented by expanded soundtracks of their own, has been deleted, so there is less of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney here, and fewer songs from the 1951 Show Boat are represented. But the music is in its optimum state; and that means that the basses and percussion are deep and booming, the vocals are out in front and soaring, and the brasses and horns have the kind of bite that one associates with high-fidelity recording, all within the limits of 21st century technology and vault research. In fairness, not every track here blossoms the same way in its sound; some of the medleys -- especially "Singin' in the Rain" -- that are keyed to the actual That's Entertainment or That's Entertainment, Pt. 2 movie sequences, are easier to appreciate if you have seen the movies; and it's difficult to imagine anyone buying this set who has not seen both movies a lot more than once.
Discs one and two take us through That's Entertainment's musical highlights, while discs three and four are devoted to That's Entertainment, Pt. 2. In every instance on the material from those movies, the tracks represent complete numbers, rather than the edited excerpts used in the two anthology movies -- and considering that most of the movies represented here pre-date the late '40s and, thus, never had soundtrack releases of their own, that only enhances the value of this set (one can "square" its value for serious musical buffs). The fifth disc is a direct reissue of the 1994 That's Entertainment, Pt. 3 soundtrack CD. The major difference between this set and the previous edition lies in disc six, which has been changed completely -- instead of tying up loose ends from the other anthologies, that disc now contains 25 outtakes from the MGM vaults, many of them never heard before or only previously available in low-quality dubs, and among the highlights are Fanny Brice's complete rendition of "My Man" from The Great Ziegfeld and a Lee Wiley demo of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and Kay Thompson performing "Weekend at the Waldorf." Some fans will be upset at the loss of certain tracks that were on the sixth platter of the original edition and, in fact, this re-release has proved somewhat controversial in that regard, and perhaps a seven-disc set would have been preferable -- or an eventual separate release of disc six here, for those who already owned the old set.
On a technical level, one must point out the inevitable weaknesses in a set like this. Most important, there is always going to be some compression on music of any kind recorded before the end of the '40s, even if it is preserved perfectly, but the Turner Entertainment and Rhino archivists and engineers have put together a remarkably satisfying body, several hundred artists and tracks strong, covering territory from the '20s to the '70s. Secondly, although the musical credentials involved with 99-percent of what's here are impeccable, this was, at root, an effort to make visually stimulating material, so there will be some element missing from the allure of much of what is here, in terms of what it was intended to do. But that doesn't mean that, divorced from the visuals, elements of the music can't blossom in their own right. The whole set makes for a few weeks' worth of listening to be properly absorbed.