Great chefs can take leftovers and dress them up with enough flourishes and new flavors to make entirely palatable new dishes, but even then, one never forgets that they’re still leftovers. Directors Amir Bar-Lev and Charlie Lightening prove to be excellent cooks in that regard, and their wonderfully shot, expertly edited “12-12-12,” documenting last year’s massive Hurricane Sandy relief concert, is an impressive yet drama-less concoction that can’t totally disguise its slightly stale aftertaste. Offering solid musical footage and candid backstage moments, the film entertains without ever quite justifying its existence.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the two directors (who were initially working on competing documentaries, only to join forces shortly before the show) lay in finding a new way to approach truncated concert footage that millions of people saw live, in full. Featuring a classic rock-heavy lineup of Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, the Who and Roger Waters, the Madison Square Garden benefit raised more than $50 million through the Robin Hood Foundation for Sandy victims, and drew a domestic TV audience of more than 19 million.
The filmmakers attempt to get around this familiarity by framing concert highlights from a plethora of different angles, and also including backstage small talk, sound checks, and footage of headliner Paul McCartney as he drolly surveys the show from his dressing room TV. Sometimes this yields gold — McCartney’s a cappella rendition of the Monkees’ theme song is a winner, as is Mick Jagger’s apt description of the lineup: “the largest gathering of old British musicians ever” — yet after a while, all the celebrity bonhomie grows a tad repetitive.
The film also gestures toward the procedural hassles of mounting such a huge concert on a moment’s notice, sneaking in sequences of event producers Harvey Weinstein, Jim Dolan and John Sykes as they quibble over the planning. This only yields one moment of real drama, however, which comes when the donations website starts hiccuping mid-show, prompting an unusually intimate glimpse of Dolan making some highly threatening phone calls. Within minutes, however, Weinstein spots Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt in the audience, and calls him backstage as an emergency IT troubleshooter.
Aside from that, the entire show appears to have gone 100% according to plan, and these scenes — as well as cutaways to a small crowd in Red Hook watching the show from a formerly flooded bar — mostly just eat into the space allotted to the actual performances. As for those performances, one could certainly take issue with the overwhelming focus on male baby-boomer faves (hip-hop is represented entirely by Kanye West, with Alicia Keys the only woman on the roster), yet with highlights as good as the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and the Boss’ “My City of Ruins,” resistance is ultimately futile.
Technical specs, from photography to sound design and editing, are all top-drawer.