Once in a Lifetime (Twice?): Diana Ross Live in Central Park

By Daniel Garrett

Diana Ross Live in Central Park
Directed by Steve Binder
Anaid, 1983/Shout Factory, 2012

The great entertainer Diana Ross’s concert in Central Park was an anticipated affair, with talk of it in offices, homes, and on the street, excitement and wonder, and though the possibility of rain had been noted, the July 1983 day of the concert was bright, really beautiful. The concert began well—with Diana Ross preceded on the stage by girls doing a dance in an African style, before the lady herself emerged like a shaman-priestess, in what looked like a straw cloak of orange, blue, green, and gold, her face first hidden then her smile shining. Diana Ross created an intimacy with the audience from the beginning, masterfully commanding the stage and her music. The lowest estimated attendance was 400,000 people, and the highest estimated attendance ranged from 800,000 to a million people; consequently, intimacy alone is an accomplishment. As the documentary of the concert captures, this was an attentive, joyous multicultural crowd: the great American audience. Yet, as the early evening deepened, the skies darkened and the skies opened, deluging all in water. Ross remained focused on her audience. Diana Ross’s authority, charm, calm, and concern impressed critics as she managed the crowd during the stunning storm. The planned performance was shortened, and Ross gave her full concert the next night, July 22nd; and the documentary includes both night’s performances and the director Steve Binder’s commentary of fact and appreciation.

Diana Ross began her career as the core performer in the Supremes before going on to spectacular solo success with music and film, scoring hits with the songs “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me in the Morning” and “Last Time I Saw Him” and “The Boss” and “Upside Down” and other songs, and starring in the films Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz. Diana Ross had become a legend, with aspects of her story and style exploited in projects such as Sparkle and Dreamgirls, works she did not control. Ross had left Motown for RCA (Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Silk Electric, and Ross), and was at the zenith of her fame when she appeared in Central Park. Of course, Diana Ross had and has a right to her own independent existence and interpretation of that life and work: and in Central Park she presented and proved herself the consummate entertainer, dynamic, intelligent, sentimental. Both nights of Diana Ross’s Central Park performances were impressive, but in different ways: the first night was triumphant from the beginning, a confirmation of a singular woman’s great success; and as the storm approached and spread, her response—calm, informative, soothing, sensuous, dancing—was a demonstration of her assurance and strength as a woman and performer. Ross remained entertaining while looking a disaster in the eyes. The second night’s performance was that of a trouper, someone who can take a disappointment and transform it, someone who can make giving a dynamic, diverse show seem easy. One suspected rather than saw her fatigue as a result of the night before: Ross insisted on the full participation of herself and her audience; and she sang and danced and presented different moods, different points of appeal. Few performers could hold a stage that well. Diana Ross, whose costuming included a gleaming purple bodysuit, a white teddy, and a silvery robe with white fur on its sleeves, presented a musical program focused on fellow feeling and fun, and made the ballads “Home” and “Family” declarations of affirmation and tenderness, “It’s My House” a sexy enticement, and “Let’s Go Up” an encouragement, with Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” something that found the vulnerable self in all and touched the singer herself—she cried. Ross, dressed in red tights with a frilly top, did a dance duet with Michael Peters that was charming fun, and her performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” was quietly lovely, and “All for One,” which gave the concert its theme—For One and For All—was a suitably communal end.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.