Film Review: 12-12-12

Concert films may be all the rage, but it will be hard to top the glitz and missionary zeal of this look behind the scenes and in front of the crowd at the star-laden Madison Square Garden show to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

In 12-12-12, the filmed benefit for the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, there are many heroes, and stars: the first responders, police and healthcare workers of Breezy Point, New York; and the musicians performing pro bono, including Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Bruce Springsteen.

Yet Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, is the real luminary, and even savior, turning up just in time to fix a technical glitch blocking viewers’ contributions. All that effort, and people still can’t get their money in! “Bless you,” says Harvey Weinstein, the producer and organizer (the other is John Sykes of Clear Channel), when he sees Schmidt calmly approaching backstage, quelling everyone’s anxieties. Schmidt, like all tech gurus, is a cool and calm fixer, and the website starts to work. As comic and presenter Chris Rock says onstage, “We got so much money now, the whole place looks like Beverly Hills.”

This tension adds a dimension to what might otherwise have seemed a worthy celebration, and just that. But who doesn’t like a backstage, behind-the-scenes peek? It may also be the first time you learn to love Weinstein, the gruff honcho with a heart—at least here—of gold, working free for a cause to help the region, maxing out his organizational skills.

Another structural novelty is that 12-12-12 intercuts among dressing rooms, the celebrities working the phone banks, and actual footage of the hurricane’s devastation—especially in Breezy Point. It was also a good idea to show side glimpses of the bar in Red Hook where the storm survivors are watching the concert on TV, cheering as donations pour in. It’s a slick production, with perfectly timed intervals: one group getting ready to go on as another wraps, and then the stage rotates. So that’s how it’s done! It’s orchestrated, but doesn’t feel phony.

You also get a new, unexpected appreciation of riggers, electricians and stagehands. Working with editor Ben Gold, directors Charlie Lightening and Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story), the film smacks of professionalism from the get-go. The concert genre is starting to have its own conventions, like the cut to the audience, here pumped up and emotional. They aren’t overdone, though, and are held for just the right length of time.

The tunes may not be new, but Billy Joel, Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, Chris Martin and Michael Stipe deliver the goods. Only once in a while does the doc itself get a little star-struck, with too much footage of Springsteen and his “Wrecking Ball” song, the instant Springsteen metaphor for New Jersey’s “Give me your best shot/I can take it and come back” response. Springsteen opens the film, and the camera lingers—the one time in the movie you think: OK, get on with it.

Other than that, all seems in balance; it’s especially fun to hear one of the producers remark with relief that Kanye West, performing in his stylish, signature black-leather kilt, is behaving well, despite the fear that West would be a wild card. The Stones get on and get off—and tickle the crowd with Mick Jagger’s opening crack: “This is the biggest number of aging British musicians to ever be in Madison Square Garden.” More to the emotional heart of the event, Keith Richards declares, marching through the long hallway and onto the stage, “It’s about time somebody did something around here.”

Proceeds—$50 million that one night—went to the nonprofit Robin Hood Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. Apparently, unlike other disaster rescue efforts one has heard about, monies were expeditiously dispensed into the hands of the victims. Plus, it’s a real kick to see Martha Stewart waiting a little impatiently for the lights to go on as she works the phone bank. Or to catch the offhand remark from Jake Gyllenhaal as he hands off his incoming call to a colleague: The person on the other end has never heard of him.