Milwaukee Film Festival Review: “Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story”

We’re reviewing films you can check out at the Milwaukee Film Festival.


Never Too Late opens “sometime in the ’60s,” with Johnny Carson standing on the iconic “Tonight Show” stage. He looks over with a comically confused expression to his bandleader – Doc Severinsen, who that night has chosen to dye his hair red, purple, green and a few other colors that are harder to identify, while wearing a jacket that you might call animal-print, if those colors were found in nature.

“You look like Walt Disney threw up on you,” Carson says.

The movie then cuts to Severinsen over twenty years later. The title card reads, “Age: 90, but who’s counting?”

Severinsen, a trumpeter from a young age, achieved national fame as Carson’s bandleader, during a time when “The Tonight Show” was the pinnacle of nightly entertainment, and nearly every American spent their late-night hours tuning in.



“Doc Severinsen defined what we do,” Questlove, leader of “The Tonight Show’s” current band The Roots, says during the documentary. “I hope to be at that level in my 90s. … Time doesn’t affect him at all.”

After he left “The Tonight Show” in 1992, he undertook a relentless touring schedule that has lasted unabated until now, when at 90 years old, he still travels the country performing.

The documentary’s whimsical title cards reflect this remarkable longevity, while also complementing Severinsen’s own lightheartedness and humor. The preface to a master class, in which Doc passes wisdom on to musicians 70 years younger than him says, “Master Class Number … who knows?”

Milwaukee holds Severinsen in a special place of affection, as he served as principal pops conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1994 until 2007, along with his many other performance commitments.

Over the course of the film, we get a glimpse at every era of Severinsen’s life. Old photos from his childhood and interviews with family members illuminate his life growing up in Oregon. Video of his early performances and talk show appearances illuminate his early-career struggles with alcoholism. And not to mention the bounty of “Tonight Show” footage, in which we see Severinsen’s comedic and performance chops, along with his famously vibrant and bizarre outfits.

As Carson says, “Where do you get those outfits? Some old pervert in a basement?”

But arguably, the most interesting part of the movie is Severinsen today. Severinsen at 90 conducting an orchestra of 20-year-olds is a fascinating and remarkable site. He plays trumpet with a verve that the young professionals are still striving to achieve.

One scene shows Severinsen’s workout routine at Gold’s Gym, replete with protein smoothies, lifting gloves and bicep curls, and a personal trainer who says, “He’s a freak of nature.”

The film is a loving and fun tribute to this great performer, one of the greatest trumpeters to ever pick up the horn, who’s dedication to his craft is unmatched and who’s stamina is relentlessly impressive.

As Severinsen says, at age 90, when standing on a festival stage, trumpet in hand, “I’m gonna do the shim sham all the way to my grave.”



Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.