Come Together: A Night For John Lennon's Words & Music had been in the planning stages for about a year prior to its live broadcast from New York City's Radio City Music Hall on October 2, 2001. But the tragic events in that fair city a mere three weeks earlier caused a recalibration--everything, not only in New York but in the entirety of our culture, was enveloped in the shadow of 9/11, and it simply wouldn't do to ignore it for an all-star concert. So the attacks on America were made a part of the program, with Lennon's message of peace and love intended to help in the healing process.
It results in a bit of a messy mishmash. The songs' introductions, by a bevy of celebrities (including Ben Stiller, Tim Roth, Dustin Hoffman, and James Gandolfini) end up carrying the burden of marrying the two shows, and are often more than a little awkward as a result; the celeb will talk emotionally (and genuinely) about New York or its firemen or world peace, and then clumsily say something along the lines of "John Lennon thought that, too..." before moving back into the Lennon tribute stuff. At risk of sounding vile and insensitive, those moments don't exactly make this a disc you want to revisit too often outside of that moment.
Come Together was aired live on the WB and TNT before its original DVD release in 2002. It's now been acquired and reissued by Eagle Rock Entertainment under their "Greatest Hits Live" banner; the art certainly doesn't downplay the tragedy, but they're clearly hoping the focus is squarely on the music, which is a decidedly mixed bag.
As a general rule (both here and in other Beatles and Lennon cover projects), the artists that stray the furthest from the original recordings do the most memorable (or at least most interesting) work. The reason is simple: it's better to do something unique than invite too many unflattering comparisons to an icon. When, for example, Stone Temple Pilots attempt to do an exact replica of "Revolution", it serves only to showcase how weak a vocalist Scott Weiland is (at least compared to John Lennon); Marc Anthony's shot at "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" fails even more painfully.
However, when Yolanda Adams and Billy Preston re-imagine "Imagine" (sorry, couldn't resist) as a barn-burning gospel scorcher, or when Natalie Merchant does a quiet and delicate take on "Nowhere Man," it plays. Alanis Morisette's darkly moody "Dear Prudence" and Cyndi Lauper's emotionally raw cover of "Strawberry Fields Forever" are equally impressive, and Lou Reed's version of "Jealous Guy" is certainly distinctive, if a bit too divergent from the plaintive tone of the original.
Not that all of the experiments work. Craig David (remember him?) does a light blues/R&B cover of "Come Together" that starts out well enough, but someone in authority should have stepped in at rehearsals to 86 his corny freestyle break. And I'm not sure who put Shaggy (remember him?) out in front for the closing, full-ensemble medley of "Give Peace A Chance" and "Power To The People," but they made a bad, bad call.
Sean Lennon, John and Yoko's son, appears in three numbers (a trio, a duet, and a straightforward but effective performance of "Julia"); he plays and sings well, though he still lacks a certain on-stage charisma. Other artists do pretty much what you expect. I like Nelly Furtado, but if you don't, her performance (with Dave Stewart) of "Instant Karma" isn't going to change your mind; likewise, my intolerance for Dave Matthews is unchanged after his faithful cover of "In My Life". And I like Shelby Lynne enough, but "Mother" isn't much of a song when you drain the raw passion from it.
Kevin Spacey hosts, starting and closing the show while providing an unexpected musical interlude by performing "Mind Games". Spacey doesn't have a great singing voice, but he's got a pretty good one, and his full-throated rendition of one of Lennon's more difficult songs is ballsy and passionate--he goes for the gusto, and kudos for that.
The full-frame video image is about average. This is a standard-def TV broadcast--the colors are a little dull but it's a clear image and a decent transfer. The program is interspersed with documentary segments of Lennon, so there is some expected noise due to the rough shape of some of the source materials.
Our audio options are a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track and a 24-bit PCM Stereo Mix. The 5.1 is full and rich, with a nice spread to all channels and good mixing at the source.
Bumpkus. We got nothin' here.
There's a fair amount of good music to be found in Come Together: A Night For John Lennon's Words & Music, but there are enough out-of-tune performances (and the tough timing problem) to recommend caution. Lennon aficionados, and fans of the individual artists, will probably want to pick it up, but you might want to play it safe and just Rent It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.