The flicker of candles, in many other cases an overused prop, was an apt backdrop for Friday’s somber and reflective collection of musical performances and readings, the flames a gentle reminder of our own precariousness. Throughout the country, there has been a call for a return to normalcy, and via “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” the Big Four networks and talents from the highest ranks of acting and music created a bridge for Americans back into everyday life. Show was a seamless melody, though hastily assembled and broadcast from three locations. It’s a sign, make that a beacon, of harmony not just among Americans and entertainers but within the executive offices of network television — one that for this generation, should be remembered as TV’s finest moment.
The show aired on more than 200 networks worldwide and was heard in more than 150 countries on radio, according to event organizers. Preliminary figures on donations from by phone and Internet pledges (www.tributetoheroes.org) will be known today.
Disturbing at times, uplifting in others, the parade of musicians hailed from rock, R&B and country, from elder statesmen such as Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Paul Simon to recent hitmakers such as Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias and Alicia Keys.
Collectively, however, they demonstrated that they are cut from the same cloth: Deep down, they believe music has a healing power like no other art form and hearing a special song in a time of need helps lift some of that weight off the heart.
Readings and video clips personalized bravery, friendship, love and dedication; there were stories of how police officers, office workers and total strangers put a life or several in front of their own.
The promise of the title was fulfilled, starting with Tom Hanks, always brilliant when it comes to being understated and powerfully direct, who introduced the participants as “merely artists and entertainers” who joined to “ensure that (victims’) families are supported.”
Talent, assembled by MTV Video Music Awards producer Joel Gallen in four days, appeared for one song or reading each. None were introduced, no songs mentioned, no Chyron spelled out the name of performers. The focus stayed squarely on the intent of the evening, and at the best moments, the music served as an emotional coda to a particularly touching anecdote.
The words “it was losing a saint,” spoken by a man who has not yet found his wife, hung in the air as Neil Young gently coaxed out the introduction of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a marvelous choice enhanced by Young’s tender delivery that turned inward its accusatory segment and made it a statement about his own lack of comprehension. He wasn’t alone in choosing another musician’s work to perform, and quite mysteriously, those that did provided the evening’s most poignant moments. Wyclef Jean, wearing an American flag jacket, delivered an intoxicating version of Bob Marley’s masterpiece “Redemption Song”; Limp Bizkit acoustically dove into Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”; Alicia Keys, alone at the piano, was an uplifting force on Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free”; and Celine Dion kept focused her singing on Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”
Others opened up their own songs to new meaning, none better than Bruce Springsteen, who started the creditless show with “My City of Ruin,” a song he wrote about Asbury Park, N.J., that contains the powerful line of “come on, rise up.” It gave the two hours a sense of recovery and not just remembrance.
U2 performed from London, as did Sting, and the Irish band extended Springsteen’s sentiment with “Walk On.” Bon Jovi turned the ’80s arena classic “Living on a Prayer” into an intimate statement of helplessness.
Willie Nelson closed the night with “America the Beautiful,” bringing onstage many of the celebrities who had staffed the phones: Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, James Woods, Benecio Del Toro, Ben Stiller, Meg Ryan, Sally Field, Danny DeVito, Mark Wahlberg and others.
For once, star power ran on low wattage just fine.