Use your mentality
Wake up to reality
--From “I’ve Got You Under My Skin"by Cole Porter
The actor facing the camera is Richard Gere, and can he really be saying what he is saying on network television?
“Now here’s the most important thing you need to know. If you have sex, wear a condom. If you’re stupid enough to shoot drugs, for God’s sake don’t ever share the needle.”
Red, hot and bold--that’s what “Red, Hot and Blue” is by United States TV standards. It’s a stride forward for which ABC should be applauded. No other U.S. network would gamble on it, according to its originators, New York lawyer and art critic John Carlin and London filmmaker Leigh Blake.
A 90-minute music-video special, “Red, Hot and Blue” airs at 11:30 p.m. Saturday (which is World AIDS Day) on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.
World AIDS Day is also being recognized elsewhere on TV, including cable’s Bravo, whose telethon “Unfinished Stories II: Artists and AIDS” airs from 2 p.m. Saturday to 3 a.m. Sunday, and again from 2 p.m. Sunday to 3 a.m. Monday. The event features celebrities galore and, at 5 p.m. Saturday, a 60-second spot titled “A Moment Without Television,” during which viewers will be asked to reflect on the AIDS epidemic. The spot is also being carried on numerous other cable systems.
Then at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS is broadcasting an episode of “The Hogan Family” in which David Hogan learns that a close friend has AIDS. Curiously, David never asks how his friend got AIDS, but he does give some valuable advice to a high school assembly at the end of the episode: “If you’re gonna do it, use a latex condom.”
Not part of this mix, unfortunately, is the excellent AIDS-related episode of NBC’s “Lifestories” that was to have been shown Sunday night, only to be yanked by the network for reasons that remain ambiguous at best. NBC should run this episode as soon as possible, for it’s arguably the most honest and educational AIDS story ever produced for American TV.
And that returns us to “Red, Hot and Blue.”
While going much further than most in addressing the causes of AIDS with a bracing candor deserving of cheers, “Red, Hot and Blue” is still entertainment foreplay compared with a much better and blunter British version to be shown in Europe.
The differences in the two programs spotlight a wide attitudinal gap separating British TV and American TV on this issue. The latter is still hesitant to fully confront the AIDS crisis and its sexual reverberations, apparently for fear of alienating some viewers. When it comes to AIDS, American TV for the most part still wears a Victorian corset.
“You can say much more and be more experimental on British TV than you can on U.S. TV,” Blake said, “because generally in Europe, one is allowed to have more of a political view. It’s also because we are used to thinking for ourselves much more than being told what to think.”
Both “Red, Hot and Blue” programs utilize the music of the great American composer Cole Porter, with top rock and pop performers having donated their services, along with prominent directors, to make video adaptations of classic Porter tunes whose romantic lyrics assume an eerie and powerful relevance in the context of today’s AIDS epidemic.
And both programs will benefit AIDS by drawing attention not only to the epidemic itself but also to a companion album and video whose proceeds will go to AIDS charities.
The major differences are tone and focus.
The British program is essentially a testament to the urgency of the AIDS crisis, supported by Porter music.
The U.S. program is essentially a testament to Porter, with AIDS in the background.
“I would definitely say this is an entertainment special designed to celebrate Cole Porter through musicians of today,” said Malcolm Leo, the producer assigned by ABC to assemble videos supplied by Carlin and Blake into a late-night program for its U.S. audience. The AIDS message was secondary, he said. “The problem was finding the right balance so that the show wasn’t a polemic.”
The results are mixed. Ranging from Jody Watley’s romantic rendition of “After You, Who?” to k. d. lang’s melancholy “So in Love” to Neneh Cherry’s driving, liberty-taking version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” some of the videos are striking as well as provocative.
Erasure’s rousing “Too Darn Hot,” for example, at times superimposes printed AIDS statistics and other messages on news footage of AIDS activists clashing with police. And the last of the 12 videos--Annie Lennox singing “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodby"--is either an aching reminder of those lost to AIDS or simply a torchy lament, depending on your perspective.
And perspective is just the problem.
Typical of American TV, the ABC program uses stars--Carrie Fisher, Kyle MacLachlan and Whoopi Goldberg in addition to Gere--to introduce the videos. The British one doesn’t.
“We really wanted this to be very modern and different, where you just go from film to film,” said Carlin. “We felt people didn’t really need to have their hands held, but the network felt the people would have been very confused.”
It’s the presentation that’s sometimes confused. With the exception of Gere, and Goldberg on one occasion, these stars emphasize Porter, not AIDS, in their introductions (MacLachlan actually sits at the piano and briefly plays). And this, combined with extensive use of archival footage of Porter, blurs the focus on AIDS to the point that the impact of the videos themselves is somewhat diminished.
The archival material is charming and would be grand on just about any show. Except this one.
Partly because this material is included, and partly because the U.S. version is 12 minutes shorter due to having more commercials, ABC’s “Red, Hot and Blue” contains six fewer videos than the program being aired on Britain’s Channel 4 (and also getting weekend screenings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).
Two of the missing videos are among the most interesting and provocative: In the Jungle Brothers rendition of “I Get a Kick,” a huge condom is stretched across a face, and in Jimmy Sommerville’s interpretation of “From This Moment On,” men romantically embrace.
“I would have preferred those be in, but ABC wanted more marque names,” Blake said. “Actually, it was the Erasure piece that we never expected to get on the network because it expresses a lot of real issues that pertain to the epidemic. But Launa Newman Vincent (director of variety and late-night development at ABC) insisted that it go in.”
Yet the video appears in the ABC program minus some of the toughest printed statements that appear in the British version, such as: “The U.S. spends more in one hour on defense than in one year on health care.” That was dropped because “it couldn’t be documented,” an ABC spokeswoman said.
In many other respects, the British program is simply more informational and much more of a health-awareness program, while also containing provocative statements from some of the rock artists who don’t appear in the ABC program. David Byrne: “Sex is not only safer with a plastic condom, it’s my . . . opinion that it feels better also.”
ABC was “shocked when they first got some of the material we produced, because some of these videos are more downbeat than what we would ever see on the network,” Carlin said. “But after their initial shock, they slowly came around.”
Although Carlin and Blake say they had strong differences with supervising producer Leo, both laud Vincent and Michael Brockman, ABC’s president of daytime, children’s and late-night entertainment, for “pulling this program through.”
“We hung in there, and the network really turned out to be all right,” Carlin said. Using its mentality, waking up to reality.