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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Committed to Hope and Excellence

July 20, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Given the national fascination with awards shows, isn't it strange that no one has come up with an annual competition to honor the nation's most engaging benefit concerts?

Certainly some TV network or cable channel would love to have a two-hour-or-more special, filled with video clips from the star-studded affairs themselves and the awards night enthusiasm of the nominees. You could even call them the Bennies.

This year alone, the competition would include highlights from "VH1 Honors" and the the two-day Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco, the Who-led Prince's Trust gala in London and the front-runner: Thursday night's ninth annual Commitment to Life concert at the Universal Amphitheatre.

This three-hour affair, which raised an estimated $3.5 million for AIDS Project Los Angeles, continues to be filled with so much imagination and energy that it's hard to believe so much work goes into a single night.

Tony-nominated shows have come through town with less invention and spark--from the writing (Bruce Vilanch and Jeffrey Richman) to production (Scott Sanders and Scott Wittman) to direction (Wittman) to musical direction (Michael Skloff) and on and on.

The show's theme this year was a nostalgic embrace of the innocence and idealism of the '60s, an attempt to underscore the hope given the battle against AIDS by continuing breakthroughs in medical research and public support.

The look back was in a form of a musical revue whose diversity would have impressed even Ed Sullivan, the late master of the TV variety show who introduced the nation to the Beatles, the Bolshoi and bicycling bears.

For starters in a night of constant surprises, NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman donned cutoffs and go-go boots as the mystery guest in a lively dance number built around the old Nancy Sinatra hit "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' ."

Then, Roseanne served as hostess of a delightfully irreverent Barbie fashion show--complete with models re-creating the spirit and wardrobe of Barbie as nurse, beach bunny and nightclub singer.

She was followed by a sassy music and dance skit in which Jenifer Lewis used all her diva charms in a James Bond salute, complete with a robust rendition of "Goldfinger" and a playful commentary on the differences between Bond and such blaxploitation heroes as Shaft and Cleopatra Jones.

Framing singer Taylor Dayne on some other songs from "Hair," the Waters dancers even brought back some of the "Hair" nudity.

And, finally, Neil Diamond, the show's centerpiece, stepped into the audience during "Sweet Caroline" to re-create the "happening" mood of the '60s by singing and even dancing with fans.

In more straightforward musical numbers, Oleta Adams, Lionel Richie, Ashford & Simpson, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and TLC performed songs of optimism and/or loss--most of them from the '60s--that served in this context as commentaries on AIDS.

The most gripping moments, however, were supplied by singer-songwriter Me'Shell Ndegeocello, who was introduced by a pregnant Madonna, whose bulge was partially hidden by a leather jacket.

Ndegeocello, whose new "Peace Beyond Passion" album is a captivating reflection on racism and sexism in '90s America, reached back to the '60s herself for "Easy to Be Hard," a song from "Hair" that was turned into such a sterile pop hit by Three Dog Night two decades ago.

But Ndegeocello, who moves effortlessly between rap and soulful R&B singing, recast the song with such passion and style that it became a fresh expression of the isolation and pain created by social indifference.

She then followed with an even more electrifying number of her own, "Leviticus: Faggot," an attack on bigotry and intolerance both insightful and brave.

In the end, however, the real stars of the evening were the trio honored by AIDS Project Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that helps serve nearly 6,000 people affected by HIV or AIDS.

They were Jill Barad, president and CEO of Mattel Inc.; Edgar F. Bronfman Jr., chief executive of Seagram Co., which owns MCA; and Diamond.

In introducing Diamond, actor Tom Hanks, himself a past AIDS Project award recipient, spoke of the generous spirit that characterizes these and other activists who use their influence and money to support AIDS and other social causes.

"Instead of sitting on the sidelines and simply reaping the rewards of one of the most successful careers in music history, he [is] one of those who chose to get involved . . . with dignity and determination . . . an invaluable effort in keeping hope a part of the reality of AIDS."

But the evening's most culturally liberating moment was earlier when Barad, whose company is best known for Barbie, climaxed her acceptance speech by proudly placing an awareness ribbon on a Barbie doll.

For everyone involved in the AIDS campaign over the last decade, the move underscored the way AIDS--against all early odds--has found a place on the national conscience and agenda. The image of Barad holding the doll was an indelible moment in a warm and stylish evening.

For APLA party coverage, see F17.

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