TV review of the MTV 'Hope for Haiti Now' benefit

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 2010

As it has for past catastrophes, the entertainment aristocracy marshaled its forces Friday night and used television and the Internet to stage a global fundraiser for the victims of a natural disaster. "Hope for Haiti Now," aired on stations throughout the world, including at least six in the Washington area, spread the gospel of "give" on behalf of Haitian earthquake victims.

A memorable lineup of artists sang and actors and other celebrities told anecdotes and pleaded for funds during the two-hour telecast, which seemed to follow a formula established by previous efforts -- all of them derived from 1985's "We Are the World," the all-star recording session and video that raised money for African famine relief.

Hopping from Los Angeles to London to New York to Port-au-Prince, the telecast opened with Alicia Keys singing "Prelude to a Kiss" and closed with Bono, Rihanna and Jay-Z performing as a kind of Trio of One-Named People. In between, viewers worldwide saw and heard Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean ("I am Haitian," he reminded the audience), John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Sting, Madonna, Jennifer Hudson, Bruce Springsteen and others performing songs selected for their suitability to the event.

Many numbers, thus, were anthems of hope: "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Many Rivers to Cross," "Lean on Me" and "We Shall Overcome."

Among the spoken performances were fundraising pleas from organizer George Clooney, former president Bill Clinton, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts, Steven Spielberg and, appearing as a duo, young Matt Damon and old Clint Eastwood. Also joining forces were comic Chris Rock and, seated silently next to him, Muhammad Ali. Rock read words he said Ali had written.

Brad Pitt also appeared, late in the show, but wearing a long, scraggly beard that made it look as though he must be shooting a new version of "Rasputin" -- with himself in the title role, of course.

Annoyingly (as at previous such events), the producers decided not to identify any of the performers with their names superimposed on the screen. That turns the broadcast into a kind of pop quiz of pop music, but with no one supplying the correct answers. That unnecessary coyness probably also stems from "We Are the World," when it was said, over and over again, that the participating stars "checked their egos at the door."

Okay, they can check their egos, but why should they have to check their names? A few identified themselves when they spoke, but most performed anonymously. The sets were striking in their simplicity: a few background curtains and strings of lights hung from above. Some artists brought along sizable ensembles; Madonna sang with a large choir, and Sting, in New York, got help from the celebrated group the Roots, now the house band on NBC's "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."

Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta reported from Haiti, interviewing young victims who'd survived for days under rubble until being pulled free by rescue workers. The telecast really couldn't help but be inspiring, though it was undercut at the beginning by too many songs and singers who just sounded anguished and despairing -- probably not the most productive approach to take.

As television, this was a case of content trumping style by a long shot, one of those milestone events by which people will remember this year. Over on MTV, a personality calling himself Sway gave the show a rave review, hailing it as "extremely overwhelming in a great way."

Under the circumstances, it's probably wise not to differ.

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