When Grammy Awards producers learned of Whitney Houston’s death less than 24 hours before the live telecast, they scrapped parts of the script, added performances and puzzled over how best to honor the Grammy-winning singer, who died unexpectedly at age 48.
Host LL Cool J said addressing the Grammy audience after Houston’s death was “definitely the most challenging moment I’ve faced in my career.” He decided to open with a prayer, and producers agreed, though none could recall another network TV event that began as such.
This and other last-minute changes made to the 54th annual Grammy Awards are chronicled in a new documentary, “A Death in the Family: The Show Must Go On,” which premiered Monday at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
The screening of the 25-minute documentary and 14-minute highlight reel of past Grammy performances was also a not-so-subtle push for Emmy votes.
“We’d love to have you consider us when you vote,” said Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of the Grammy Awards for the past 32 years. “We’ve been nominated before and not won.” He added that executives at CBS, which broadcasts the Grammys, suggested Ehrlich’s team produce the documentary, which can be seen on the Grammy.com website and at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Emmy ballots are due at the end of the month.
The documentary, though it deals with show changes made after Houston’s death, isn’t a downer.
Ehrlich said that about an hour before he heard about Houston, he’d experienced a career high: Paul McCartney, who was set to close the show, asked if he might perform a Beatles medley from “Abbey Road,” and maybe it could include a guitar jam with the likes of Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh and Bruce Springsteen. The number came together just before Houston’s death.
Ehrlich said the magic of that McCartney moment made him feel “like maybe there is a God.” “God said, ‘I’m going to give this to him, but I’m not going to let him get too cocky’,” the veteran producer said in an interview before the screening.
After Houston died, the challenge was to “do something that was respectful to Whitney,” Ehrlich said, “that set a tone that also didn’t lose the fact that there were thousands of people who were coming to this event because they had done something remarkable this year on their own, and they needed to be treated with respect as well.”
The documentary includes interviews with LL Cool J and Jennifer Hudson, who performed a heartfelt tribute to Houston. It also includes rehearsal footage and interviews with Springsteen and Grohl, who said performing alongside McCartney was unforgettable. Springsteen joked that he had “been waiting since 1964” for the opportunity to play with the former Beatle. Grohl said sharing the stage with such icons was like “looking at Mount Rushmore.”
February’s Grammy Awards drew nearly 40 million viewers, its second largest audience ever. The biggest Grammy audience -- more than 43 million viewers -- came in 1984, when Michael Jackson won a record eight awards for “Thriller.”