Review: Grammy doc 'A Death in the Family' looks at Whitney Houston's passing
What happens when a superstar dies 24 hours before the big show?
Earlier this week, The Recording Academy debuted “A Death in the Family: The Show Must Go On.” The 26-minute documentary details how the 54th annual Grammy Awards put together a tribute to Whitney Houston for the telecast 24 hours following her death.
I was out of town and couldn’t attend the June 11 premiere and Q&A in Hollywood, but the short film is available for viewing on Grammy.com and will also be part of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
The documentary is decidedly and deliberately non-showy: small talking heads often appear in a corner of a shot of an artist performing before expanding to the full screen. There’s a certain low-tech, news story approach to the whole enterprise.
The piece doesn’t go into any of the back story behind’s Houston’s death, instead staying focused on its mission: What happens when one of music’s top names dies 24 hours before the Grammys? With the show locked, how quickly can everything change and how does a show pay homage without seeming exploitative? Producer Ken Ehrlich, show writer David Wild, exec producer Terry Lickona, and Recording Academy head Neil Portnow are among those detailing how the Feb. 12 telecast was updated practically minute-by-minute following Houston’s death. Host LL Cool J also chronicles how he approached Houston’s death and his highly unusual decision to insert a prayer in his opening monologue.
Everyone speaks totally with one voice, as if there was never any debate at all as to how to honor Whitney, while taking care not to turn the program into the Houston show. That could be because they don’t want to show any possible dissension or there was never any discussion at all over how to honor Houston after Ehrlich thought of having Jennifer Hudson, who did a remarkable job, pay tribute or because the train had already left the station so there was no time for discussion, just execution.
The doc’s title is a bit of a misnomer: Houston’s death didn’t happen in a vacuum with the rest of the show totally locked and loaded: With less than 48 hours to go, Paul McCartney decided that he wanted to change his show closer from “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” to the much smarter “Abbey Road” medley that includes “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End.” Not only was the Beatle changing his tune, literally, he now wanted Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh and Bruce Springsteen to join him. It would have been interesting to know how the producers dealt with the extra time needed for both Houston's tribute and the longer McCartney number.
While the emotional appeal of calling the documentary “ A Death in the Family” is understandable, the documentary is just as much about the McCartney performance as the Houston addition. Plus, the McCartney portion provides some of the most glowing commentary. Where else will you hear Springsteen raving like a fan boy about playing with McCartney, the fulfillment of a wish he’s had since 1964? Or hear Grohl say he felt like he was standing next to Mt. Rushmore as he looked over at McCartney, Walsh and Springsteen?
The documentary works well on face value, but it has a very important additional role here that has nothing to do with educating the Grammy-watching public: The Grammys are using the film as a way to reach out to Emmy voters, and it is none too subtle. Part of Portnow’s main role in the film is to brag about the team that produces the show and really stress the exceptional way the Grammys, every year, not just this one, come together.
Remarkably, the Grammys have never won an Emmy for best program, as Gold Derby points out, and if it’s going to happen, this is the time. Not only did the Grammys score their second highest ratings ever, drawing 39 million viewers, they tied this year’s Oscar ratings and beat the 2011 Oscars, even though the Oscars are traditionally considered the much “bigger” show and the Grammys have always suffered a little in the Academy Awards’ shadow.
In case all the talking heads haven’t made their points persuasively enough, the documentary ends, as Springsteen’s Grammy-opening number “We Take Care Of Own” plays, with a montage of the 20 or so extremely diverse performances that took place during the 3-hour telecast...as if to say to voters, “C’mon. Is there really any other show that deals with as much technical switch-ups as we do? Really?” It’s as subtle as a sledge hammer, but very effective and impressive.
Whether you want to view “A Death in the Family” as a documentary or as a marketing tool, it’s a compelling look behind the curtain of how the “biggest night in music,” as the Grammys have self-proclaimed their evening to be, comes together under unbelievably challenging circumstances...even when “one of their own,” as LL Cool J called Houston, doesn’t die on the eve of the show.
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