The 40th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated this fall with a six-week "Human Rights Now!" concert tour, which played to more than 1 million people in 20 cities on five continents. It was designed especially to promote awareness of the human rights work of Amnesty International, its sponsor.
The concert featured Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou Ndour performing their best-known numbers and making political statements. People from the audience also made statements, which are interspersed with fleeting travelogues and behind-the-scenes production footage.Now it's being presented as an "HBO World Stage" special. The distributor claims that before the week is out, more than 1 billion people will see the show, worldwide.
The program offers an amazing collage of extraordinary musical talent, economic ingenuousness, and political earnestness.
Most refreshing is the sincere belief, obviously held by the participants, that their demands that governments live up to promises to obey the articles of the historic UN declaration can help correct most of the evils of our societies. Unfortunately, most of the political statements come across as stiff, formal, prearranged comments.
"`Human Rights Now!' Tour" proselytizes even when individual members of the group step out beyond the declaration with their own private agenda: Peter Gabriel makes a pitch against capital punishment, and Bruce Springsteen attacks the "economic apartheid" of the United States.
Sometimes it gets a bit confusing as to where the UN declaration ends and the personal beliefs of the performers begin. But that's show biz.
Although there's lots of music, some of the political preaching is so repetitious that often I found myself wanting to shout: "I got the message. Now stop talking, and sing."
In many cases, however, when the singing began again, the lyrics proved to be even more insistently simplistic than the lectures that preceded them. Or, in other cases, the lyrics were enunciated so poorly that I yearned for an interpreter. But the dance movements of the performers often provided as much evidence of the freedom being demanded as the lyrics did.
While the cinematography is often excitingly inventive, the sound is not much better than what you might have gotten yourself, if you'd taped the concert from your seat in the stadium.
I imagine this is because of the varying acoustic conditions in the stadiums, although much of the performance footage was shot in one location - the tour's final stop on Oct. 15 in Buenos Aires.
I guess you had to be there; on TV, the show seems repetitious and overly long at times. But four major moments stand out:
- The strange and mystical Peter Gabriel performance of "Lay Your Hands on Me," where he allows himself to fall backward into the outstretched arms of the audience.
- A rousing, clenched-fist tribute to Steven Biko, the black South African martyr, in which the entire audience raises its fists.
- A weird, magical moment when Sting appears with Amazonian Indians in Brazil and allows them to paint his face and body as he sings, then persuades them to join in the dancing.
- And the time when Sting sings a tribute to the mothers of the "disappeared ones" in Argentina, then brings the grieving scarf-covered women on stage, each carrying a blossom. It is an unforgettable moment, weakened just a bit by the incongruity of Sting's inviting each of them to dance with him.
"`Human Rights Now!' Tour" offers three hours of sincere haranguing for what is basically a fine cause - and, oh yes, there's some memorable music, too.