“Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince” airs Tuesday night, four years to the day after the national shutdown began. Strike that… it only feels that way. Actually, as the CBS special is quick to remind you, it arrives exactly four years since the death of Prince — a span of time that feels considerably shorter than that, maybe because of our lingering collective denial over that tragedy, and because it’s impossible to feel eulogistic or even particularly retrospective when recurrent hits like “Kiss” still feel like the product of a new power generation, not a bygone one. (And as long as those thong photos exist, Prince will never, ever have been a boomer, no matter what his birth certificate said.)
This is a worthy tribute special, as long as your expectations are not that anyone on it will ever actually go crazy. Some of the stars, like Miguel, Juanes and Usher, are content to try on Prince’s pantsuits for size — figuratively speaking — with recreations of his sheer sex appeal, and that’s a decent stunt in itself if you have the moves to pull it off, as they nearly do. Others, like H.E.R. and Gary Clark Jr., lay off the choreography and are happy to channel his musical chops, which is another fun enough spectacle as far as it goes. Morris Day and the Time, the Revolution and musical co-director Sheila E are not appropriating anything, of course; they’re on board to provide that O.G. energy. These are all reasonably entertaining on their own terms, but the show really takes off in the moments when there’s something a bit more transformative happening.
One of these is when “The Beautiful Ones,” maybe the most underrated song off “Purple Rain,” becomes a ballet instead of just a ballad, featuring the show’s biggest rock star: Misty Copeland. It’s not as big a surprise to have her on as it might be if you’re aware (as she later reminds us in a spoken introduction) that she toured with Prince, although he probably never let her take over a unisex hieroglyph-shaped stage quite the way she does here. You can’t take your eyes off her, but the show’s editors insist you must, occasionally, because H.E.R. is actually singing and playing piano on the number and there are audience reaction shots that must be attended to. But Copeland lives up to the song’s title as hardly anyone could, and you’ll find yourself wishing she stuck around for everyone else’s numbers, too. Who wouldn’t like to see the enhanced go-go dancing she could pull off during the Foo Fighters’ “Darling Nikki”?
Said performance of “Nikki” is a thrilling thrasher, of course, with Dave Grohl pointing out as he introduces it that, first, the Foo Fighters haven’t performed it since their cover became a rock radio staple two decades ago, and second, that he knows Prince didn’t like it. (The telecast leaves out an additional aside that Grohl added during the taping — that he and Prince did get together and jam in a studio once.) The song was Prince’s hilariously profane update on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” redesigned as a troll for Tipper Gore’s PMRC, and yet here we are 36 years later, with the heroine’s erotic whims uncensored for prime-time (at least in the preview edition provided to critics). The Fighters bash their way through it, as ever — with Grohl’s white teeth and Taylor Hawkins’ whiter teeth sometimes all that’s visible through their shocks of long hair — untethered to the precision of the dozen-player-plus big band that Sheila E. assembled for almost everyone else to play alongside. Somewhere, maybe, Prince is saying: not so bad after all. (One regret: this telecast omits the other song the Foo Fighters did at the taping at the L.A. Convention Center back in January, an equally ferocious “Pop Life.”)
On the opposite side of the mayhem scale, but just as good as an upheaval of the original, is the sight and sound of Susanna Hoffs being joined by Coldplay’s Chris Martin on piano and gentle harmony for “Manic Monday.” Deserving a hit as it was, as written by Prince for the Bangles, it’s a song that can get a little cloying on the ten-thousandth listen, so it’s a delight to hear them turn it into something softer and sweeter, with Martin adding a few wistful asides wondering where the time goes. (Apparently, time does not exist as anything but a construct, judging from how Hoffs looks exactly the same now as then except for better hair.)
Another standout is St. Vincent, who’s remarkable not because she breaks out a new spin on the material, but because she feels like the apex of something Prince represented around the time he was making “Controversy,” the song she’s covering — the alien androgyne provocateur genius who happens to be a guitar god, too. If he’d only lived a few more years, surely he would have been inviting St. Vincent to come jam at Paisley Park, too. In lieu of that having happened, we do get a faithful rendition of one of his best early ’80s song in which St. Vincent is able to bring the central funk guitar riff as well as the briefest bit of shredding at the end, and — all legs and lacey hands — look like something completely out of his wildest imagination in doing so.
As for the moments in which a star is asked to basically do something identical to what Prince already did to perfection, those can be a little less interesting. Unless that star is Philip Bailey of Earth Wind and Fire, in which case the proper reaction is: Holy s—! For “Adore,” executive producer Ken Ehrlich probably didn’t have to scan his Rolodex for too long to think of the one guy on the planet whose falsetto was and is at least as strong as Prince’s. Bailey’s so up in his register that he never touches the ground from note one, and neither do we.
The show has plenty of other inspired pairings of performer and material. The opener, “Let’s Go Crazy,” which has H.E.R. paired up on both lead vocals and lead guitar, goes by so fast that it doesn’t quite give either a long enough chance to shine, but they both get their individual moments later — and it’s tough to think of anyone besides Clark who could or should have done “The Cross.” That slow-burning gospel-rocker also benefits from Sheila E putting her more flavorful percussion aside and just pounding the godly hell out of a basic garage-rock drum kit to the side of the stage. Also feeling like an inevitable-but-not-inevitable pick is Prince pal Mavis Staples, who is probably the only person who should ever be let near “Purple Rain” this late in that over-covered song’s game. Nothing compares to her.