Television director Steve Binder was behind the camera for some of the most momentous musical events in TV and movie history, including The T.A.M.I. Show, Elvis Presley’s 1968 comeback special, and the series Hullabaloo (as well as the Star Wars Holiday Special and Chevy Chase’s talk show, but the less said about those, the better). One of Binder’s most significant achievements—his Cable ACE-award-winning direction of the 1983 Showtime special Diana Ross Worldwide From New York: For One And All—has gone largely unseen since it originally aired, live, on two consecutive nights in July. The circumstances surrounding the special have become show business legend, though: How Ross stepped on to a bare Central Park stage on July 21, 1983 under threatening skies and tried gamely for 40 minutes to sing her ’60s Motown hits, ’70s ballads, and ’80s disco anthems to a crowd of 400,000 people, while driving rain and gusting winds left her shivering and soaked. Eventually, concerns about crowd safety forced the concert organizers to cut the event short, and Ross promised everyone she’d perform again the next day—without bothering to check first to see if the city would allow such a thing. Fortunately for Ross, there was so much positive buzz about how she handled the weather emergency on the 21st that people moved heaven and earth to get Central Park back in shape for the 22nd, when Ross finally performed her full 90-minute set.
The Diana Ross: Live In Central Park DVD contains both versions of the concert, each of which is fascinating in its own way. In both, Ross dons a skin-tight, spangled bodysuit, augmented occasionally by a flowing cape, and she shimmies back and forth, all alone on a small, shaky stage. Her band is tucked away out of sight—which makes it especially strange when she duets on “Endless Love” with an unseen partner—and she has a strange relationship with her massive audience, whom she encourages and embraces, then chastises when she feels they’re not being suitably calm and quiet. The main difference—besides the atmospheric conditions—is that in the July 22 show, Ross gets to add a couple of costume changes, and a lot more songs, including covers of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon In The Sky.” (She also does The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and gripes that she’s “stealing it back” from Phil Collins.)
Binder’s work on the July 21 show is more in the vein of a documentary filmmaker, capturing a concert as it falls apart, with Ross breaking in the middle of songs to guide the crowd, talk to staffers offstage, and receive instructions from a drenched Barry Diller. That first set is all about the drama: How long will Ross go on? And how will the crowd react? But the second set is so strong that it would be a landmark even if the circumstances weren’t so unusual. Ross was at the peak of her performing powers in ’83, with a formidable catalog and a sizable fan base who’d respond wildly to even her goofiest gestures (such as her blowing kisses softly into the microphone, or her quoting her favorite Mae West double-entendres). Even with Ross’ occasional diva turns, she’s charmingly human, as she nearly falls off the stage during “So Close,” urges in the hunks in the crowd to doff their shirts during “Muscles,” and weeps openly during “God Bless The Child.” These Central Park shows were Ross’ “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall” moment. Perhaps this DVD will boost its reputation, at last.
Key features: A commentary track by Binder on the rain-shortened first concert.