To critique a telethon benefiting the poorest nation on the Western Hemisphere after a cataclysmic earthquake based on the standards that one uses for any ordinary variety show is profoundly absurd: Even if George Clooney had threatened to club a baby seal on air, as long as the show provides relief to the victims of one of the worst natural disasters in modern history, it counts as a success. Nonetheless, tonight’s multi-net broadcast “Hope for Haiti Now” has to go down as a particularly stirring and well-oiled production, generating rewind-worthy musical performances and wallet-opening appeals in equal measure.
Broadcast live from Los Angeles, London and New York, the musical displays were of an especially high caliber, and they served as an effective audience-lure for reports from CNN’s Anderson Cooper that startlingly put across the extent of the tragedy — anyone who sat through the dispatch on Haitian orphans and failed to first tear up and then subsequently donate money is a heartless bastard indeed. The suffering that this tiny nation has endured (even prior to last week’s 7.0 quake) is truly Job-like, and Cooper’s brief vignettes managed to underline the devastation without overwhelming viewers into tuning out.
Alicia Keys hit a high note to start the show with a raw-throated rendition of her “Prelude to a Kiss,” followed by Coldplay performing in a tight semi-circle and resembling a subway busking group with access to an unusually large number of effects-pedals. Each performance thereafter was interspersed with appearances from major stars, Haitian immigrants and one former U.S. president appealing directly to the camera for donations.
Interestingly, three of the night’s best performances reached all the way back to the 19th century, with Bruce Springsteen reprising his “Seeger Sessions” interpretation of the spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” John Legend crooning the tragically appropriate “Motherless Child,” and Mary J. Blige upstaging them both with a version of “Hard Times Come Again No More” that will hopefully crash the iTunes servers due to overwhelming demand.
(In a particularly smart innovation, each of the night’s performances are available for sale as relief-benefiting downloads.)
Other highlights included the ever angelically-voiced Stevie Wonder, and a soulful Taylor Swift (the latter followed quickly by Robert Pattison, in what was presumably a brilliant ploy to prod preteens into donating their allowance money). Sting provided the lone uptempo perf of the evening, and Beyonce inserted some Haiti-specific lyrics into her “Halo,” accompanied by Chris Martin on piano.
Tonight’s show saw no performances to rival the train wrecks of telethons previous (such as Fred Durst’s evisceration of “Wish You Were Here” back in 2001), and even the lowest lights were suffused with good intentions. An original song collaboration between Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bono and the Edge was obviously hastily assembled, while Dave Matthews and Neil Young seemed to loose track of one another on their duet of Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken.”
Considering that Haiti has one of the most diverse and vibrant musical cultures on the planet, the absence of definitively Haitian music was surprising (Haitians Wyclef Jean and Emeline Michel both performed classic Jamaican songs). Granted, names like Coupe Cloue and Boukman Eksperyans will certainly generate fewer American eyeballs than Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, but considering the unparalleled power of music to shrink the gulfs between cultures, it felt like a missed opportunity to more viscerally connect viewers with the Haitian people.