HBO // 2009 // 206 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 2nd, 2010
On January 18th, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. On a somewhat less important note, pay-cable network HBO offered its programming for free on that day. This was in order that the public might be able to enjoy the chance to watch not only the inauguration, but also some of the star-studded celebrations taking place in our nation's capital. This two-disc DVD set is highlighted by the "We Are One Celebration" event that took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the similarly celebrity-enhanced "Neighborhood Ball" that was held later in the day. Added in as appropriate flavor are Obama's Inaugural Address and the Invocation by the Rt. Reverend V. Gene Robinson. You won't find any commentary or context framing the significance of the occasion, just the enjoyable celebratory events themselves.
Disc one opens with the prayer from Rev. Robinson, a five-minute invocation that emphasizes the hope that God will free our nation from hatred and intolerance (beyond that, he prays that we will move beyond "tolerance" and learn to "warmly embrace" each other's differences). A bit long-ish as prayers go, but some very positive sentiments and a nice way to kick off the set.
The "We Are One" celebration runs a generous 110 minutes, offering speeches and readings from noteworthy actors in addition to musical performances from a pleasantly diverse mix of iconic musicians. On the acting side of things, the highlights are most assuredly a stirring opening speech from Denzel Washington and a superb reading by Tom Hanks set to the music of Aaron Copland. Washington and Hanks (two of America's most-loved actors, to be sure) seem totally in their element in this atmosphere, bringing their effortless class and gravitas to the proceedings. Everyone fares reasonably well, though the pairing of Steve Carell and Jamie Foxx is a very odd one: Carell seems stiff and uncomfortable (almost Michael Scott-ish), while Foxx seems too casual for the affair (doing a goofball Barack Obama impression that goes on a bit too long). There is also a small handful of non-actors onhand, including Tiger Woods (who speaks at some length on the virtues of the men and women in our armed services).
On the musical side of things, we get a ceaseless stream of warm positivity, which is pretty much what you'd expect at an event like this (c'mon, it's not like someone's going to do "Satisfaction" at a Presidentially-sanctioned event). So, you'll hear Josh Groban doing "America the Beautiful," Mary J. Blige doing "Lean on Me," and so on. What does add a fresh element into the mix are some of the atypical pairings: Sheryl Crow joins Herbie Hancock and Will.i.am, John Legend joins James Taylor, Jennifer Nettles joins Jon Bon Jovi, etc. It's certainly an impressive group: you also get Bruce Springsteen, U2, Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, and many more. The only real negative is the appearance of Garth Brooks, who for some unknown reason gets to sing three songs (most artists only get one), including a horrifically butchered version of the classic "American Pie" (re-tooled to sound more like a cheeseball American anthem).
Disc Two kicks off with President Obama's 20-minute inaugural address. Though one may wince a little bit when contrasting the President's ambition of then with the struggles he has faced in achieving his goals since, it's still a very fine speech that is worth remembering. The most striking thing about the speech is the considerable difference in tone that it brought to the office of the presidency: suddenly, we had a leader willing to address issues in a diplomatic and level-headed manner rather than making hawkish pronouncements. Also of note is the manner in which the speech acknowledges the diversity of our nation.
However, the biggest chunk of the disc is devoted to the 71-minute "Neighborhood Ball," the first-ever ball to be open to the general public. The affair is considerably looser and more energetic than the "We Are One" celebration, if somewhat less polished in terms of presentation. President Obama turns up to dance with Michelle to the strains of a Beyonce tune early on, but he's only onhand for about 10 minutes of the ball (he did have nine others to attend that night, after all). A similar mix of musicians and celebrity presenters are present. In terms of the latter, you'll see appearances by Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Vanessa Williams, Jamie Foxx, Ray Romano (who gets to do a short comedy set), Kate Walsh, Lucy Lui, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kerry Washington. Aside from Romano, these appearances tend to be very brief, as the ball focuses on the musical side of things.
The music may be a little more frenzied and sloppy at times, but the raw energy somewhat compensates for that. There's also a bit more edge to the event, as the likes of Jay-Z and Maroon 5 get to perform songs that would have felt out-of-place at the stately "We Are One" celebration. Also present to perform: Stevie Wonder, Will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Sting and Faith Hill. The weird moment of the night: an athletic group called Anti-Gravity turns up to perform some impressive physical stunts as feverish techno music plays.
The transfer is excellent, providing strong detail and depth throughout. Flesh tones are warm and accurate, while the broad color palette is conveyed quite nicely. Audio is pretty solid, though it should be noted that these events are perhaps a little below the standard of the average concert disc (singers at the "We Are One" concert occasionally sound a little distant, while the mics at the "Neighborhood Ball" tend to be a little bit distorted from time to time). There are no extras included.
Though heavy on entertainment and light on substance, if you're up for re-living the giddy energy of President Obama's inauguration day, you should have some fun with this set.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 206 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: We Are One
* IMDb: The Neighborhood Ball