Sunday, June 11, 2017

Ariana Grande: One Love Manchester (BBC/ABC-TV, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a quite good music show on TV, even though it’s a kind of music I don’t ordinarily listen to and therefore I had a hard time trying to keep track of what the songs were: a one-hour special ABC-TV assembled from the “One Love: Manchester” benefit concert given in Manchester, England June 4, two weeks after singer Ariana Grande’s regular tour concert in Manchester was attacked by a terrorist suicide bomber. The bomber set off his device outside the concert hall as people were leaving and took out 22 victims as well as himself. Grande was widely criticized (by, among others, British-born CNN talk show host Piers Morgan) for flying home after the concert, and I remember thinking that aside from being a devastating tragedy, this was also going to be a make-or-break moment for her career: both her fans and people worldwide who had barely heard of her before were going to be judging her by how she responded, whether she would continue her previously scheduled British tour as if nothing had happened (which would have got her criticized for being callous) or she would cancel it (which would have got her criticized for being fearful and yielding to terrorism).

What she did was announce that she would go right back to Manchester two weeks later and do a benefit concert, which she called “One Love: Manchester.” She would hold it at a larger venue than her original show — the Old Trafford cricket stadium (Manchester is one of Britain’s most sports-crazy cities, well known not only for cricket but the Manchester United soccer team, and Manchester native David Beckham was one of the non-musical celebrities who tweeted best wishes to Grande and supported the concert publicly) — and would invite guest stars to join him for what ended up being an all-star celebrity benefit along the lines of the ones given in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. There was some concern after similar terrorists struck again on the London streets on June 3 that the concert was going to be canceled, but Grande — to her credit — insisted on going through with it and Manchester police simply upped their already extensive security precautions, including asking people not to bring backpacks (“rucksacks,” the British call them) because anyone who did was going to have to allow it to be searched thoroughly. ABC-TV telecast highlights from the concert on Saturday, June 10 but showed surprisingly little of it; they took an extravaganza that lasted over four hours (an indication of how long it was was that the first song ABC showed Grande performing was done in daylight and her last was at night) and shoehorned it into an hour-long time slot, less commercials. This meant they could only present nine songs and they had to leave out some of the most interesting items the British paper Daily Telegraph mentioned as having been performed at the concert, including a duet between Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus on Williams’ song “Happy” (usually I can’t stand that song, but I suspect in this context it would have moved me) and another between Liam Gallagher of Oasis (a British pop group from Manchester founded by brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher in 1991 which made some major hit records and had quite a long run until 2009, when the Gallaghers publicly split up in a feud whose rancor matched that of such other fighting musical brothers as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Ray and Dave Davies) and Chris Martin of Coldplay.

ABC’s editing made the show much more of a dance-pop festival than the entire concert, which encompassed more kinds of today’s pop music, and what was interesting both about the nine songs shown on the special and the overall concert as reviewed by the Telegraph is that the singers didn’t have to reach far down into their repertoires: they already had a lot of songs about saving the world through love and staying strong in the face of adversity they could perform on an occasion like this and have them be appropriate. Among the performers we didn’t get to see on U.S. TV were Marcus Mumford, leader of Mumford and Sons, who kicked off the concert with a song called “Timshel,” and a group called Take That that’s well known in Britain even though they don’t have much of an audience here. (Robbie Williams, who has been in and out of Take That as a band member, is better known in the U.S. than his off-and-on bandmates.) We got one of Grande’s opening songs and then her duet with the rap group Black Eyed Peas on “Where Is the Love?” (a song that was almost too appropriate in this context!) — it’s nice to know that there is still some hip-hop out there that expresses love instead of meanness! Grande paid tribute to Olivia Campbell, one of the victims of the May 22 bombing, saying that she’d spoken at the concert to Campbell’s mother. “As soon as I met her I started crying, and I gave her a big hug,” Grande said. “And she said that I should stop crying because Olivia wouldn’t have wanted me to cry. And then she told me that Olivia would have wanted to hear the hits.” That led into a performance of “Side by Side,” one of Grande’s most unabashedly sexual songs and one that she hadn’t included in her original set list for the show. Then Miley Cyrus came and joined Grande for a cover of the 1986 Crowded House hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” a quite astonishing spectacle in which the two young women singers held hands on stage through much of the song (and the song itself was considerably better than most of the pop material presented at the concert); I thought that, given that Ms. Cyrus has just recorded a special song for this year’s “LGBTQ Pride” events, seeing her holding hands on stage with another woman might start rumors …

One of the strongest moments of the evening was Katy Perry, dressed in a frilly white garment that looked like it resulted from a bathrobe and a feathered gown having sex with each other, telling the Manchester audience, “We will not be silenced!” and then going into her big hit, “Roar” — and roar she did, in a stunning performance that sent my admiration level for her up several notches. After that Coldplay came on for one song that was about the only piece up to then that qualified as rock instead of dance-pop (though the quiet and surprisingly moving acoustic number performed earlier by Justin Bieber, his hit “Love Yourself,” came closer to folk than rock or pop and sent my admiration level for him up several notches, too), and Grande closed the show with a song whose inclusion totally surprised me: “Over the Rainbow.” Of course it’s a song with a storied history: written for Judy Garland to sing in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz (and her theme song for the remaining 30 years of her career!), with lyrics by lifelong Leftist and Hollywood blacklist victim E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, and associated with an artist who was surprisingly socially conscious for a performer of her time — Judy campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, and when JFK was assassinated in 1963 she fought with the producers and network doing her regular TV show to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” on nationwide TV as a memorial. Ariana Grande’s performance of “Over the Rainbow” was as beautiful as the song itself, adding soul-music devices to it without going totally overboard and berserk with them the way Patti LaBelle did in her cover and phrasing the song much the way Ray Charles did in what remains my favorite non-Garland version of “Over the Rainbow.” She sang eloquently and tapped into the song’s wistful messages of happy little bluebirds flying to (in the words of the spoken introduction to the song in The Wizard of Oz) “a place where there isn’t any trouble” — if there is such a place and Judy Garland’s spirit ended up there, I think she approves.