Review: ’12-12-12′ doc takes viewers behind the scenes of Superstorm Sandy benefit

Here”s a tip: if you”re planning a star-studded disaster benefit, get Paul McCartney to say yes and then the other acts will fall in line.

That”s one of the key tidbits viewers will take away from the “12-12-12,” a documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev, that pulls back the curtain on the Madison Square Garden charity concert that took place Dec. 12, 20012 to raise money for victims of Superstorm Sandy. Joining McCartney were Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Billy Joel, Alicia Keys, Dave Grohl, Roger Waters, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Who, Kanye West and many others.

The film, which opens today, is the tale of powerful people-Miramax”s Harvey Weinstein, Clear Channel”s John Sykes, and MSG”s James Dolan- using their vast network of connections to bring together an amazing array of talent on incredibly short notice and the behind-the-scenes story of what it takes to pull off such a staggering feat six weeks after the disaster. While there is some incredible performance footage, it is not so much a concert film, as a film about how the sausage gets made.

To be sure, most of us when we watch these benefits don”t think about how difficult it is to  set up an infrastructure to handle the millions of phone calls and online donations for only a few hours. As the producers note, if someone gets a busy signal or can”t log on, that”s lost money.  The booking of the talent is almost the easy part compared to the back end logistics.

After opening with gorgeous footage (the concert is beautifully shot) of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band singing “Wrecking Ball,” “12-12-12” shifts to camera phone footage of Sandy as she makes landfall on Oct. 29. “Oh my God, are we in trouble,” someone says as the storm”s full brunt-800 miles wide with 90 mph winds-begins to be felt.  And from there it goes from bad to worse as levies break and Breezy Point, Queens burns to the ground as 110 houses on the Rockaway peninsula catch on fire.

Cut to Billy Joel rehearsing “Miami 2017,” which includes the appropriate line “I”ve seen the lights go out on Broadway,” and a voice over of Joel taking about the apocalyptic vision in the song. “I just never thought it would be that close to fact,” he woefully adds.

The film does a good job of toggling back and forth between the behind-the-scenes preparation and  watching artists like Keys and Waters rehearse (The Pink Floyd leader decides to bring in Eddie Vedder to sing “Comfortably Numb,” because, as he not so graciously adds, Vedder forgot the words to the song when he performed it on “Late Night With  Jimmy Fallon.”)  The Who”s Pete Townshend requests that the production for his band”s segment be stripped down, “especially if it saves $250,000” that can go to help people.

The movie uses McCartney”s vantage point as a bit of a prism. We see him talking about playing with Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear as he effectively fronts Nirvana, as well as we”re invited to his dressing room to watch him watch the benefit on TV until it”s his time to play. It”s a nice touch for uber-McCartney fans, but doesn”t really add anything.

To its credit, “12-12-12” doesn”t want to be just a parade of famous faces, none of whom lost their homes in the storm. It is eager to show the real people behind the storm. Footage of Sandy, its aftermath, and interviews with first responders who were helping others while their own homes were being destroyed all accomplish this, but the film goes overboard in its common-man touch when it keeps flipping back to a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, watching the concert. However, it feels like Bar-Lev was trying to go the route of showing people’s spirits and how they were reclaiming their lives instead of indulging in what he calls “disaster porn.” Good call on not showing shot after shot of the misery-he plays that just right.

“12-12-12” does a good job of showing the tension that putting on a live event with this many moving parts takes and we get a front-row seat to the melt down that occurs when  donations drop  from 40,000/minute to 4,000/minute because the system is overloaded. How convenient that Google”s Eric Schmidt just happens to be in the audience and can come help. It”s good to have titans of the internet on speed dial.

There”s a bit of a self-congratulatory feel to the film at times, but with good reason: it”s  a herculean effort to put something together of this magnitude and the producers surpassed their own goal of $45 million by not only raising $50 million, but getting it all dispersed by April 2013. And the sale of the documentary will help raise even more money for those still in need. That’s reason enough to see it.