On DVD: The Official Inaugural Celebration

A year and a half into the Obama presidency, watching this two-disc set of inauguration day celebrations feels odd, distant, and inappropriate. Of course, these events originally took place at an appointed time and place for the express purpose of marking an historic moment of great significance. At the time, it seemed to some that no ceremony could be too large to recognize the passage of the Bush era and the beginning of a new and potentially radical one. It now seems as though the anticipation outpaced the reality. Viewed in retrospect, the inaugural celebrations seem far more dated than they should - a record of something that we now take for granted. The Obama presidency has not met with anyone's expectations - his most fervent supporters have been alternately cheered and stymied by his mixture of calculated risk-taking, legislative shyness, and centrist populism; his most venomous opponents have made fools of themselves painting him as a messianic radical, while traditional conservatives have found grist for their punditry in Obama's liberal spending policies.

Whatever one's views, the inaugural ceremony and concerts seem like weird relics from a time long past - much longer than the seventeen months since that January day. This two-disc set from HBO compiles the major events broadcast that day, although they are arranged oddly.

The first disc begins with an Invocation by Reverend V. Gene Robinson, a prayer for good things to come, which leads into We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration. This concert combines speechifying and musical performances, all carried out quite tastefully on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of the new First Family and an enormous crowd of thousands. The two-hour concert includes musical performances by Bruce Springsteen, U2, Mary J. Blige (looking downright awesome in all cream, plus snakeskin boots), Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, John Mellencamp, Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi, and Pete Seeger. There are also special presentations by everyone from Denzel Washington and Martin Luther King III, to Marisa Tomei and Jack Black. It's a stately, dignified show. The musical performances are all rather strong. The emotional highlight comes near the end, when 90-year-old Pete Seeger takes the stage to lead the company and the audience in a rendition of "This Land is Your Land."

The second disc begins with President Obama's Inaugural Address - which surprised me at the time by not being his finest piece of work, paling beside a number of his other, much more inspired orations. The other program on the second disc is The Neighborhood Ball, the evening concert that was more of a party than We Are One. The Neighborhood Ball features performances by Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and an alarmingly bearded Sting. It's mostly good stuff, but not as consistent as We Are One. The atmosphere is loose and club-like, which make Vice President Biden's appearance unintentionally hilarious (although that might just be me).

Since the value of this two-disc set mainly lies in its' role as an historical document, I wish HBO had gone all the way. Had they included the entire inaugural ceremony (dull as that may have been) and arranged the content in chronological order, those most likely to purchase this set would have had a record of the whole day, rather than these disordered bits and pieces. Still, We Are One features a number of memorable performances, and the set as a whole will appeal to those who want to remember this historic occasion in years to come. 

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