‘Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2020 Inductions’ Review: A Series of Pretty Good Mini-Documentaries in Search of Some Actual Music

Chris Willman
·11-min read

Veteran stars and music-biz types who’ve been attending Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies since they began in the late 1980s like to talk about how they at their best in the early days, when the proceedings were just for those in the room, and hadn’t yet been turned into a television show. That genie is decades past being forced back in the bottle, of course. But now, for the first time, we have a Hall of Fame induction that exists only as a television show, since 2020 has become the year where there’s no such thing as “the room where it happens.”

As seen Saturday night on HBO, “The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2020 Inductions” was all-doc and no rock. At least, there was no fresh performance footage. If you watched the show unaware of this, you might have been in suspense at first: Wait, are they saving all the musical numbers for the end? But it was not just the city where this year’s ceremony was to have taken place, Cleveland, that didn’t rock. Neither did anyone’s living room or walk-in closet.

Joel Peresman, the president-CEO of the Hall of Fame Foundation, told Vulture in a recent interview that they’d thought of filming at-home performances by some of the inductees, but that besides the practical difficulty of capturing those, there was a sense that audience-free numbers would be “kind of boring.” There was a tradeoff for all the missing music: documentary films on each of the eight inductees that were allowed to run longer than usual, like a series of mini-“Behind the Musics” that left out most of the salacious stuff.

Each of the eight segments — nine, including an In Memoriam interlude — was exceptionally well put together, which maybe is not surprising when you’ve got filmmakers as renowned as Morgan Neville, Mark Pellington and Thom Zimny producing or co-producing the short films, in the cases of Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau, respectively. But the show ultimately still had a hole in its soul, one that might have been patched up by including even one galvanizing original performance that could have made the proceedings feel more urgent than a film you might sit through as a tourist in the Hall of Fame screening room years from now.

You can feel for the show’s producers as they dealt with this dilemma: they were between a rocklessness and a hard place. But there remained another question that no one seemed to have much talked about this year: Would it have killed anybody to have just delayed this year’s show until it could happen live, and make the induction class of ’20 the class of ’21 instead? To put it indelicately, it definitely would not have had that effect on the three out of six performer inductees who’ve already gone to the great hall in the sky — T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, the Notorious B.I.G. and Whitney Houston. More importantly, though, the three who are with us — Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and the Doobie Brothers — deserved their shot at an on-stage reunion moment, whenever it might come. Never mind the absence of a climactic jam: Who wouldn’t kill for a climactic hookup between Tom Johnston and Trent Reznor?

But in all seriousness: It’s not just the performances that make Hall of Fame inductions memorable, but the potentially awkward moments, when members who’ve slagged each other in memoirs for years are forced to jockey for the dais for a few moments, or when wagers are being made and stopwatches set over which inductee will deliver the longest or most tone-deaf speech. Part of the fun in watching the live broadcast on HBO, before the network condenses everything for repeat airings, is thinking, “Well, that part will be edited out.” Saturday’s show was already pre-abridged for your approval, with nearly everyone reading off a prompter instead of being forced to read the room.

The one truly spontaneous exception to that rule was the three extant members of Depeche Mode sharing the screen, in triplicate, for a joint acceptance speech. (Kudos to whatever platform allowed all three to come across in very un-Zoom-like high definition.) Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher were having such a terrific time riffing off one another from their respective locales, it was contagious, even without a shared podium. Fletcher deadpanned that without the band rescuing their singer, “You’d have been still stealing cars, Dave.” Gahan countered that “maybe I would have moved on a bit there. Let’s hope I’d be stealing larger things than cars. Definitely something dodgy, though. Music saved us in more ways than one.” Gore did a bit less joking around, yet something about the shaved sides of his head served to exaggerate what might be the most warmly maniacal grin in rock ‘n’ roll. Their banter seemed even more like a breath of fresh air than it otherwise might’ve just because it was nearly the only instance in two hours of human beings interacting in the present day. And when we saw footage of a stadium’s worth of fans waving their arms back and forth to “Enjoy the Silence,” it felt like a cheat not to get a Cleveland Public Hall doing the same, even if that meant waiting out social distancing.

“It’s a shame we’re not doing the concert,” Fletcher said. That sentiment was echoed by Reznor, who’s previously said that he’d been looking forward to uniting the current lineup of Nine Inch Nails with some of its many former members. “I think I was most looking forward to the ceremony itself,” Reznor said in his solo speech, “where hopefully the whole camp past and present was going to get together and have a moment. And we’re all stuck in our little boxes in our screens.” With no one to joke around with — not that that would have been his tendency anyway — Reznor once again impressed in his speech by thanking a huge round of MIA members anyway, and seeming like one of the most politely gracious public speakers in rock… a far cry from what anyone would’ve guessed watching his muddy Woodstock ’94 performance, excerpted here.

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, provided one of the show’s many fleeting celebrity testimonials on behalf of NIN, recalling what an effect that televised Woodstock ’94 set had on her, and marveling, “’Head Like a Hole’ has two f—ing choruses,” as if that were the highest compliment she could offer any of her influences. In the last few days, Clark showed up on Amazon Music, offering an audio-only cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Piggy” — something it would have been fun to see rendered in this special, too, if all such performances possibilities hadn’t been nixed as sure trips to dullsville.

Still, a talkier-than-usual induction special did offer its pleasures. Like Iggy Pop’s cleavage, as he read a speech on behalf of NIN clearly prepared by no other writer, comparing Reznor’s visage to “a face straight out of 15th century Spain… If he had been alive at the right time, I think he could have been painted by Velazquez or El Greco and his portrait would probably be hanging in the Prado today.” Oh, and “Closer” is a closet George Clinton song, per Pop! More standard testimonials came from Miley Cyrus, Mark Ronson and David Fincher. But Reznor himself had some of the best quotes of the night, speaking to both the fury and vulnerability of rock ‘n’ roll: “As an artist I think the most significant accomplishment or feeling is realizing something you’ve created from a fragile or intimate place has reached out, resonated and affected someone else, possibly affecting how they see the world.” And: “There should be some sense of chaos.”

Manager Irving Azoff’s induction was an occasion for comedy: “It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve inducted someone who can’t sing or play an instrument,” said a rib-nudging Don Henley, and added Joe Walsh, “Irving took a bunch of young men called the Eagles and turned them into a bunch of old men called the Eagles. That was a good thing.” It all got more touchy-feely when photos of the uber-manager hugging his offspring were followed by Azoff saying, “Thank you for not being the f—–ups your mother and I worried you could be.” Rank sentiment still has its place.

Jon Landau’s segment was played straighter, although there was levity to Bruce Springsteen remembering that his first memory of his future manager was reading him panning the Blues Project as a Crawdaddy rock critic in the ‘60s and thinking, “Who does this guy think he is?” Springsteen countered the idea that rock is best just done and not thought about as he recalled strategizing with Landau early in their careers together: “There was an innate sort of intellectualism that was always part of the music we were working on, thinking about what rock ‘n’ roll meant, its place in society, its place in our own maturing.” Landau finally appears to thank not just Jann Wenner and Crawdaddy’s Paul Williams for giving him his start, but his parents “for taking me to a Pete Seeger concert when I was 4. I suddenly felt my entire mini-consciousness explode.” (Landau had seen rock ‘n’ roll future, and its name was “Hootenanny.”)

The three posthumous salutes were naturally the most affecting. T. Rex was maybe the least emotional, with such a long time gone from Mark Bolan’s death, and with his proud emphasis on style as much as substance, but made a tremendous case for the vastness of his loss in its appointed quarter-hour. David Bowie was seen in a clip copping to how Bolan beat him to glam. He described his ‘70s look and persona as “not effeminate but not necessarily super masculine. You could enhance the showmanship… I’ve always been into a visual thing.” He borrowed some of his wife’s glitter, he said, “just spit on me fingers and stuck it under my eyes, and look what happened to the world after that.” Somewhere in that statement is a hilarious truism about the power of rock ephemera to affect real change.

In the Notorious B.I.G. segment, one of the biggest mini-gut-punches comes when there’s a reminder that he was just 24 when he was slain, something it’s easy to forget in the list of impact that has preceded it. As a celebrated “rapper” of today, Lin-Manuel Miranda, says, “it’s one of the most tragic what-ifs in the history of hip-hop… How much farther could he have taken it?” Sean “Diddy” Combs says, “Time doesn’t heal some wounds.” But there’s a surprising amount of peace emanating from his mother, daughter and son, who, in their own unassuming ways, show that camera-ready charisma and realness were traits that ran in the Wallace family, before and after.

Whitney Houston, naturally, was given the climactic segment, by virtue of being the biggest superstar in this induction class … and also maybe being an easy tune-out at the end for that subset of Hall of Fame obsessives who think Houston was too pop and/or R&B to belong among the ranks of rock ‘n’ roll. Those kinds of issues quickly subside, or should, as the sheer force of her talent and great early records is jolting, considered afresh. Would Houston have really cared about joining a hall originally conceived to honor the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, et al.? Cissy Houston and Pat Houston, at the end, say yes: “In 2009 we were in London,” said Pat, “and Whitney looked at me and she said, ‘This is really special, but there’s only one thing missing: I’ve got to get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’” Said Whitney’s mother, “If I talk too long, I’ll cry.”

Maybe that blunt admission that emotions are still too close to the bone is an even better sentiment to go out on, however abruptly the show does end after that, than a perfunctory all-star jam. But if we’re still in Covid conditions this time next year — God forbid — and the class of 2021 is again facing being inducted via a virtual special instead of waiting for a live get-together, let’s hope they do what rockers have always done at their best: revolt.

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