Various Artists: Red Hot + Blue [DVD]

Various Artists
Shout! Factory

The notion of using popular culture to educate and increase social awareness wasn’t a new idea at the end of the ’80s, but what the Red Hot Foundation attempted with its first and best endeavor is stunningly ambitious, if not completely successful. Using artists from every field and musical genre and the legendary songbook of Cole Porter, Red Hot founder John Carlin was able to wrest the national conscience at the decade’s end from the lingering repressive influence of the Regan era. Conceived as a multimedia AIDS awareness package designed to bring together the artistic community, Carlin’s project succeeds when the message doesn’t overpower the inherent strength and subtlety of the songs.

Given the source material and the talent involved, the music more often than not stands on its own in this double-disc DVD/CD re-release of Red Hot + Blue. The presentation of the music and videos in its original broadcast TV format translates to a curious DVD time capsule, including a collection of intros and comments provided by some of the artists and celebrities involved in the project. While representative of the time, the ham-fisted approach of shock-value preaching is what negatively dates the package. On the whole, however, the music videos themselves are often as rewarding as the songs.

The DVD opens with the best song and video of the entire disc, the David Byrne sung and directed “Don’t Fence Me In”. The first artist to sign on to the project back in 1989, Byrne fuses African percussion and country fiddle for a lively, vital interpretation, fully complemented by the black and white images of faces cycling across the screen. As each face lip-syncs a word from the song, they begin to melt together — not in a literal, Godley and Creme “Cry” sort of way, but in the sense that the common features among all of us become more and more obvious. The subtle message that we are more alike than different regardless of race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation is beautifully articulated without a sermon.

Another early high point is former Bronski Beat and Communards front man Jimmy Somerville’s gorgeous falsetto mixed with dance beats on “From this Moment On”. Director Steve McLean’s images of Somerville mixed with images of shirtless men engaged in various choreographed embraces run counter to the almost playful music, resulting in a simultaneously unsettling yet engaging presentation.

Directors Adelle Lutz and Sandy McLeod turn Erasure’s reading of “Too Darn Hot” into the preachiest music video of the collection. Andy Bell delivers his lines from behind a news desk while Vince Clarke fills the man-on-the-street role, and throughout the song messages, statistics, and facts about AIDS are flashed and crawl across the screen. If you can look past the heavy-handed visual pollution, there is a great song underneath.

Neneh Cherry’s “I’ve Got U Under My Skin” is a less refined, less subtle, and ultimately less effective “Sign ‘O’ the Times”. Salif Keita’s “Begin the Beguine” is more engaging in the context of the larger video presentation than it is standing alone on CD, due in large part to the visual beauty of Les Ballets Africans. The montage of squirt guns shooting milky white liquid, rubber-gloved hands smeared with chocolate sauce, and images of guns between faceless lips destroys any hope the Jungle Brothers’ already horribly dated sounding version of “I Get a Kick Out of You” has at the outset.

There are two obvious parings of artist and director here: Tom Waits with Jim Jarmusch for “It’s All Right with Me”, and U2 with Wim Wenders for “Night and Day”. The Waits/Jarmusch results — black-and-white shots of Waits performing in his gravelly croak while dancing for Jarmush’s blurred, stuttering images — are successful in spite of themselves. “Night and Day”, on the other hand, finds Wenders at his most uninspired. The song itself is a highlight of the compilation — with its opening churning guitars and swirling Bono emotion, it might be the perfect U2 cover song. Unfortunately, the director and U2 have been together so long they are clich√©, and it’s hard to remember a time when their collaboration was still fresh.

The Neville Brothers (“In the Still of the Night”, directed by Jonathan Demme), Les Negresses Vertes (“I Love Paris”), Debbie Harry & Iggy Pop (“Well, Did You Evah!”), and Kirsty MacColl & the Pogues (“Miss Otis Regrets/Just One of Those Things”, directed by Neil Jordan) all turn in some of the most clever and entertaining interpretations. The worst song and video of the entire collection is Aztec Camera’s uninspired blue-eyed soul rendition of “Do I Love You?”. For the equally uninspiring video, lead singer Roddy Frame appears to be on the leftovers of Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” video set.

There are five straight-ahead, traditional readings. Of them, only Jody Watley’s “After You, Who?” truly fails on all fronts by adding nothing to the arrangement and turning in a predictable period piece video. The other four succeed in different ways. On the surface, Sinead O’Connor’s “You Do Something to Me” might appear similar to Watley’s approach and video, but O’Connor’s breathy vocals deliver the goods, and the black and white video is just slightly off-kilter enough (notice the backdrop she’s singing in front of) to make it interesting: Coed, mixed race, and same sex partygoers revel and dance while a platinum-wigged O’Connor croons. Seriously. It’s perfect.

Hearing kd lang’s delivery of lines like “I’m yours till I die / So in love with you am I” among visuals of her doing laundry while bathed in very specific lighting and intercut with shots of an IV drip results in a painfully emotional and powerful, yet simple, video for “So in Love”. Lisa Stansfield prefers a non-period, staged performance piece. Her strong vocals (and adorable cuteness) carry “Down in the Depths” up to respectable heights. Lennox closes both the DVD and re-released CD with “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”. The song makes good use of Lennox’s vocals, piano, accordion, and bass, but it’s the white space of the song that amplifies its impact and fittingly reappropriates it for the cause at hand. The video, a combination of home movies and Lennox in front of the movie screen bathed in white light, is a heartbreakingly beautiful ending to the collection.

Missing in video format is the Thompson Twins dated but appealing “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” It does, however, provide background for the DVD’s main menu, as well as accompanying the opening credits of the original TV broadcast. Not missing in any sense is the Fine Young Cannibals’ bizarre take on “Love for Sale”; however, you’ll still have to hit the skip button on your CD player because it’s on the re-release.

Unfortunately, Shout! Factory lets down both the material and the consumer with the overall package. The only bonus included is Lennox’s 1995 VH1 Honors performance of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” accompanied by Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. Numerous artists performed the tracks they contributed to the various Red Hot projects on that night, why not include all of them? The original aspect ratio is preserved here making the 4:3 full screen appropriate, but the picture quality and 2.0 stereo audio is embarrassing considering the profile of both the original project and the talent involved. The compilation is poorly tracked, and, perhaps most inexplicably, the end credits cut off abruptly after providing details for only the first eight videos.

Including the CD is, however, a nice touch. Although the label claims the CD has been remastered, I could not find any differences between the version included here and my original version from ’90. Apart from the puzzling and ever-changing track order (the original release, CD re-release, and DVD are all different), it appears to be the same release from a quality stand-point.

While not wanting to overstate the significance of Porter’s own sexual orientation, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between both his situation as a homosexual in a society that forced him into the closet during the heady ’20s and the shunned gay community when AIDS first reared its head during the excess of the ’80s. The subtext of the song selection when refracted through the prisms of these artists shed new light on the subversive genius of Porter’s songwriting and AIDS awareness when Red Hot + Blue was originally released, and it is unfortunately still very relevant 15 years later.

David ByrneDon’t Fence Me In (Red Hot + Blue)