Wall Of Sound Review: Divas Live '99

Divas Live '99 Doesn't Live Up to Potential

For an evening that began with so much promise, it's positively sinful that VH1's second Divas Live outing derailed as calamitously as it did Tuesday (April 13) night.

Any event that features Tina Turner, Elton John, Cher, and Whitney Houston could certainly sustain itself, but in an ill-advised nod to youth-obsessed sponsors, VH1 padded this show (beamed live from New York City's Beacon Theater), with divalets Brandy, Mary J. Blige, Faith Hill, and LeAnn Rimes. Even the presence of Chaka Khan and Naughty By Nature rapper Treach failed to inject the evening with the hip verve advertisers crave; instead, they sucked the momentum dry.

If not for high notes from ultimate survivors Tina and Cher, there would be hardly anything special to mention.

Turner, up first alone, drew big cheers — slinking in through the back of the house, and right into "The Best," "Let's Stay Together," and, in a duet with Elton John, "The Bitch Is Back." Then she unfurled the spoken intro to her classic "Proud Mary," which had the crowd roaring before the song even began.

"We're gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy," she purred.

It was the end of the song that blew the roof off, as Cher suddenly popped on stage to finish off the tune with her old friend, Sir Elton jamming behind them.

The emotion was real. The women go back more than 35 years to when Sonny and Cher were unknowns opening for the Ike and Tina Revue. They haven't worked together on TV since Turner guested on Cher's 1975 solo variety shows. Such moments should define events like this, but their too-brief performance came too early, and, disappointingly, amounted to the evening's only true surprise.

Cher seized the ensuing commercial break for a signature move: A head-to-toe costume change, which also included yet another hairdo from her bottomless bag of long black wigs. Re-emerging in black leather and lace, she worked every corner of the Beacon stage — the only performer to do so — as she pumped out her '89 smash "If I Could Turn Back Time."

Comparing herself to Lazarus, the biblical figure who rose from the dead, Cher then introduced her worldwide chart-topper "Believe." Whether Cher will ever believe in herself enough to do this particular song live some day remains to be seen. Much of "Believe" appeared to be on tape Tuesday night, though she did seem to fill out the refrain with live vocals. Of course, who else but Cher would have the chutzpah to lip sync in this setting? Yet the audience seemed to love it anyway, if only for the raw energy and the sight of her blithely thumbing her nose at the rules.

The rest of the evening, however, quickly went downhill. With the exception of Turner and Cher, the true divas never interacted. Instead, the audience got Elton and LeAnn Rimes, plugging their blah ballad "Written in the Stars." Shortly afterward, young Brandy proved out of her depth, even next to Faith Hill, and the night was effectively over.

Still, after an interminable equipment break, it was a relief when Houston finally appeared. But performing the least appealing songs from her new album My Love Is Your Love did little to improve things. By the time she redeemed herself with her blockbuster ballad "I Will Always Love You," the crowd was spent; the momentum gone. The final indignity was a limp walk-through of "I'm Every Woman," led by Houston and Chaka Khan, along with the evening's bit players. Cher, Elton, and Tina had wisely left the building long ago.

Word is Divas Live won't be back for a threepeat, and it's not hard to understand why. Though it quickly became a big industry event with a noble mission — fundraising for music in schools — VH1 unwittingly dug its own grave with this concept. The term "diva" — now overused and meaningless — was meant to describe a dramatic leading lady who has paid her dues. Rubber-stamping a couple of teen queens as instant superstars doesn't give them the cache of a Tina Turner. If the network can't get seasoned stars who truly want to perform and the advertisers to back them, then there's no good reason the show must go on. Deborah Wilker


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