Plenty of stories surrounded the 2012 Grammy Awards: the sudden death of Whitney Houston, Adele's first public performance in months, Katy Perry's first appearance since her split from Russell Brand, the all-star salute to Paul McCartney and much more. But when the telecast's executive producer, Ken Ehrlich, decided to create a short documentary about the ceremony, he focused squarely on the two most legendary names: Houston and McCartney.
"A Death in the Family: The Show Must Go On," a 26-minute film from Ehrlich, marks the first time the Recording Academy has presented an extensive look at the backstage process of assembling the awards show. It mostly covers the 48 hours that began on a Friday with McCartney revising his show-closing plans and ended with a prayer and a song for Houston that opened the Sunday telecast, a segment that came together mere hours before airtime.
"Can you imagine being the host of a live TV show and [going to bed] having no idea what you're going to do the next morning?" show host LL Cool J says in the film. "We were giving people permission in the midst [of a tragedy] to enjoy themselves . . . That was the toughest."
Originally, there weren't any plans to shoot a documentary that pulls back the curtain on the awards show process. The idea was presented in mid-March and Ehrlich started interviewing talent and executives in April, catching up with McCartney's "sidemen" Bruce Springsteen and Joe Walsh at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Much of the project was culled from rehearsal footage and various other material. "We had some B-roll, and we lucked out that a film crew was following Paul McCartney," Ehrlich says.
McCartney changed his performance on Friday afternoon, dropping his original plans to play Wings' "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" from "Band on the Run" and substituting the suite of songs closing the Beatles' "Abbey Road." Not only did his revised plans require a string section, but the more that McCartney thought about the presentation, the larger it grew in musical personnel as Walsh and Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl joined for a jam on "The End." Then, to up the stakes, Springsteen entered the picture.
In his interview, Springsteen recounts the call he received from his manager, Jon Landau. "Paul McCartney - isn't he one of the Beatles? So, then you say, 'Yes!'" Springsteen says, before explaining how he had been anxious to perform with McCartney ever since 1964, when he bought his first copy of "Meet the Beatles."
If McCartney's performance illustrated the first part of the documentary's title, "The Show Must Go On," then "Death in the Family" obviously refers to Houston's death the day before the ceremony. Perhaps the most poignant part of the film examines what went into the rewriting of the script and the last-minute rehearsals for the musical tribute led by Jennifer Hudson.
Ehrlich had Hudson rehearse Houston's signature tune, "I Will Always Love You," in a private room before taking the stage at the Staples Center. Once she emerged, she was asked to perform the song twice, which rarely happens during dress rehearsals.
"Ken came over after the first rehearsal and said it's not a performance - you're singing to Whitney," Hudson recalls in the film. "I knew exactly what he meant. The second time around, I could not get through the song." Indeed, Hudson's voice quivers as she begins to cry toward the song's conclusion.
"There were so many stories that night," Ehrlich says of the Grammy telecast watched by 39.9 million viewers (according to Nielsen), the second-largest audience for a Grammy show. After Houston's death forced a reworking of the opening, LL Cool J came up with the notion of starting the evening with a prayer. "How fortuitous, if I can call it that, that we had a host in LL Cool J after not having one for eight years," Ehrlich says.
The film will receive its world premiere on June 11 at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood, with Ehrlich, Grohl, LL Cool J, Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow, co-producer Terry Lickona and others participating in a Q&A after the screening. The documentary will also be posted on Grammy.com, and plans are afoot to screen it regularly at the Grammy Museum.
"Maybe we've learned something in this process," Ehrlich says of the film. "Maybe we ought to think about doing this every year."••••