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Review: Live Aid (the four-DVD set)

Bob Geldof and Midge Ure reacted to the famine in Africa and the world’s lack of response to it by organizing Band Aid, an all-star group of mainly British performers who recorded the charity song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” They then created Live Aid, an intercontinental concert that took place on July 13, 1985 at Wembley Arena in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, PA. It was one of the biggest events in the world of both music and television.

Intended to be a one-time affair, Geldof had asked that the concert not be recorded or shown again. He has since changed his mind because pirated copies now appear on the Internet and the people of Africa still suffer. Luckily, even though ABC honored his request, the BBC and MTV didn’t and it’s from their old tapes that the DVD set has been complied.

Since an official release was never planned, there is about six hours out of 16 missing and the quality isn’t always great for a number of reasons. The video image suffers from issues like being recorded via satellite and being converted from NTSC to PAL. The biggest problem is that some of the Wembley footage shows signs of horizontal banding that is a result of great volumes affecting the camera lens. It’s slightly disappointing, but certainly an expected occurrence at a concert and can’t be helped at this point.

Disc 1 begins with a prologue comprised of a BBC news broadcast about the African famine and videos for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World.” Then, the Wembley show begins with small bands like Status Quo and The Style Council. Geldof’s The Boomtown Rats and Ure’s Ultravox make early appearances before giving way to bigger acts.

Live Aid saw musicians play together in different combinations although I was surprised there weren’t more. Sting had recently left The Police to become a jazz musician. He was accompanied by saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who was part of his new touring band, and then he sang a duet with Phil Collins on “Every Breath You Take.” They both appear again later in the concert. Sting joined Dire Straits to sing his part on “Money for Nothing,” and for the strangest event within the event, Phil Collins flew the Concorde to Philly to play drums with Eric Clapton and perform a piano solo of “In The Air Tonight.”

Alison Moyet joined Paul Young on “That’s The Way Love Is.” Elton John closed his set with Kiki Dee on their classic “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and George Michael on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” Hall & Oates brought out Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin from The Temptations for three Motown classics. The Hall & Oates band stayed out and backed Mick Jagger who sang a couple of songs with Tina Turner, one of which included a minor wardrobe malfunction when Mick ripped off Tina’s skirt.

Mick was originally supposed to perform an intercontinental duet with David Bowie in London, but it couldn’t be accomplished, so they created a video for “Dancing In The Streets,” which appears in the Extras. It is quite possibly the lamest video ever made. Aside from looking like a family on vacation with their first camcorder shot it, the two are seen prancing around an empty building with ridiculous choreography and obviously no desire to dispel the rumor that they were lovers.

Paul McCartney closed the Wembley show with “Let It Be,” which was enhanced by the vocals of Bowie, Geldof, Moyet and Pete Townsend before the Band Aid finale. Although Paul is the only Beatle who performed, it was the spirit and songwriting of John Lennon that permeated the day. Elvis Costello played one song, forgoing his own material for a solo performance of “All You Need Is Love,” Patti LaBelle sung “Imagine,” and The Thompson Twins closed out their set by bringing out Madonna and Steve Stevens for “Revolution.” Bryan Ferry even sings “Jealous Guy,” which doesn’t have the same thematic connotations as the other choices, but it is still a good song

The biggest performances of the day are from U2 and Queen. U2 were on their way to becoming the biggest rock band in the world, which would happen in 1987 with the release of their first masterpiece, The Joshua Tree. They had the most fans in the crowd that waved “U2” flags. It got annoying watching those fans wave them later in the day during other artists’ sets. Bono left the stage and almost went into the crowd, trying to get female fans to break through security so he could dance with them and kiss them. It was a brilliant touch to see a soft, tender moment between two people in the middle of such a global event. If there had been more moments like those in the world, Live Aid wouldn’t have been needed.

Queen showed why they were one of the biggest rock bands of the time from the operatic “Bohemian Rhapsody” to their Elvis Presley nod, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Freddie Mercury had total control of the Wembley crowd. He got them all to clap along to the dreadful “Radio Gaga,” which is an impressive feat. The band closed with “We Will Rock You / We Are The Champions” that had the entire stadium of 70,000-plus singing along. These people would have left the show and walked food to Africa if Freddie had told them to. It is stunning to watch and you will be hard pressed to ever find a more intense bond between performer and audience of that size. I felt sorry for Simple Minds who had to follow.

There are some odd moments that occur but I’m not sure if it’s because of the day itself or because of the way the DVD set has been arranged. There is an odd under-representation of black artists. Sade appears on Disc 1 and then it’s not until Patti Labelle who closes out Disc 3 until we see another black artist in a leading role. Disc 4 has The Temptations with Hall & Oates and Tina Turner with Mick, but they are joining someone else’s set.

I know some performances didn’t make it through the years, but acts like The Four Tops and Billy Ocean, were cut as the DVD was being edited. Paul Young could have had a song or two cut. The Pretenders didn’t need three songs nor did Duran Duran, especially with the audio feedback issues during their set. Even Clapton could have had “She’s Waiting” removed and it would have been no great loss.

There were some minor items that also stood out. I was surprised there weren’t any country artists considering Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers were part of USA for Africa, but Nashville still had a few years to go before they crossed over into the pop world. The line-up flowed together very well until the odd sequence when REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” followed the reunited Black Sabbath “Paranoid.” No offense, but no one is in the mood for a couple’s skate after banging their head to Black Sabbath. Lastly, before the USA for Africa finale closed out the concert, Keith Richards and Ron Wood joined Bob Dylan for a performance of “Blowing In The Wind.” I was slightly distracted trying to figure out why they wouldn’t have played earlier with Mick since he performed two Stones songs in his set.

Aside from the scenes of Africa, the most emotionally powerful footage is seeing Teddy Pendergrass appearing in a wheelchair for the first time since the car accident that paralyzed him. He sang “Reach Out And Touch” with its writers Ashford and Simpson. The amazing level of poignancy and appropriateness to the cause make this the best performance of the entire set. Rather than civic affairs shows that no one watches, the FCC should mandate that every channel have to play this video footage once a week.

Other extras include artists around the world performing on the same day like INXS from Australia’s Oz for Africa or B.B. King from Holland. There are videos by other countries doing their own version of Band Aid with national artists. There is also a documentary about the Band Aid Trust’s work called Food, Trucks and Rock and Roll.

The concert was an amazing feat overall and it’s remarkable that there is any saved footage considering there wasn’t supposed to be. While it is disappointing that editing decisions caused the removal of a number of acts to be completely cut out like Bernard Watson, Kool and the Gang, The Hooters, Rick Springfield, Power Station and CSN&Y (although separate performances of CS& N and Neil Young did make the cut) as well as Santana and Led Zeppelin who requested their performances not to be included, the effort to release this on DVD appears to have been exhausted, so this might be your only chance to relive this historic concert. No video music library can be considered complete without it.

ED: TAS

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS

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