Real hits happened off the stage; Music: Big names, big songs are there. But so were the backstabbing and weirdness. Ho-hum Arista tribute turns a deaf ear to the interesting stuff.


Had NBC wanted "Arista Records 25th Anniversary Celebration" to be truly memorable television, they would have turned it into a made-for-TV movie.

That's not to say that the two-hour special (which airs this evening at 8) is a failure in its current form. An all-star concert in the truest sense of the term, it has enough big names -- Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Sarah McLachlan, Puff Daddy, Kenny G, Brooks & Dunn, and Toni Braxton -- to keep almost any viewer interested.

The problem is that the all-star spectacular is utterly lacking in drama. Although the show, with its succession of big stars singing big hits, smacks of an awards ceremony, it lacks the suspense associated with the words, "And the winner is "

But there was plenty of drama and suspense off-stage. Even as host Jay Leno fawned over Clive Davis, who founded Arista Records in 1975, his colleagues back at the home office were engineering his ouster. Indeed, it was announced just last week that Davis would be replaced as president and CEO by Antonio "L.A." Reid, a co-founder of the Arista subsidiary

LaFace Records.

Naturally, no mention of this is made during the telecast. Nor should we have expected any. But imagine how a TV movie could have handled the situation. As Leno is onstage, lauding Davis as "a genius," we see an actor portraying Reid on a cell phone to the offices of BMG Entertainment (Arista's parent company) negotiating the terms of his succession.

Now, that would be TV drama.

Then there's the Whitney Houston situation. The special was taped during the height of concern over Houston's sometimes bizarre behavior. As it is, watching her performance is riveting, partly because of the brilliance of her voice, but mostly because of the way her talent is colored by the quirks of her performance, until at times it is like watching her in a fun-house mirror.

For instance, midway through her rendition of "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," she does a quick set of dance steps, staring at the floor. Was that part of the choreography? Or was she momentarily dazzled by her own reflection?

Perhaps the most talked-about moment after the show was taped was her long, showy run through "I Will Always Love You." According to those at the scene, she seemed to falter midway through the song, only to be rescued by husband Bobby Brown, who walked onstage with a glass of water and a towel.

But as edited for television, Houston barely seems to miss a beat as he walks on -- making the whole thing seem like just a strange piece of stage business.

Now, imagine how dramatic that could have been had it been interspersed with fictionalized backstage footage of Houston's friends worrying over her condition? It would be like VH1's "Behind the Music" and MTV's "Real World" rolled into one!

Sadly, there are no such moments. Instead, what we get is a two-hour commercial for Arista records, in which the label's biggest stars flog their latest singles.

Some moments are great, as when Santana rocks through "Maria, Maria" and "Smooth," or when Annie Lennox sits at the piano emoting "Why." Far more are too short, as hits get crammed into rambling medleys to squeeze as many titles as possible into each artist's set. Barry Manilow, for instance, barely sings more than a single verse and chorus of any of his songs (although some viewers probably wouldn't consider that a problem), while Puff Daddy's medley puts so much emphasis on the staging that the star is frequently overshadowed by the special effects.

Did we need to hear Davis' long thank-you speech (which got more air time than Toni Braxton's truncated performance of "Unbreak My Heart")? No. Could we have done without Patti Smith's tuneless, enfeebled rendition of "Because the Night"? Yes. And will most viewers get bored before the end? Absolutely.

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