Mikhail Gorbachev’s 80th birthday party in London’s Royal Albert Hall last night had diamonds, furs, Hollywood stars, wrinkly rockers and enough Botox to fill the craters of the moon. Understated it was not.
At more than 4½hours of songs, speeches and awards, the event wasn’t undersized either.
It felt like the Soviet empire could have risen and collapsed again before we got to the final encore.
Everyone wanted to say “Happy Birthday,” salute Gorbachev’s achievements in ending the Cold War and help him raise money for cancer charities in the U.K. and Russia.
Sharon Stone and Kevin Spacey hosted, cheerfully mispronouncing just about every non Anglo-Saxon name that fell off their tongues. Spacey tried impressions of Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman and Bill Clinton. The real Clinton sent a chirpy video greeting, and Bono and Sting did, too.
Mezzo Katherine Jenkins mangled a Rossini aria. Pianist Andrei Gavrilov omitted an entire section of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. The leathery German rock group the Scorpions gyrated and grimaced.
Actress Milla Jovovich burst into tears for some reason. Maybe she realized the evening was still only halfway over.
Gorbachev used the event to start annual awards in honor of people who have changed the world. The first set went to Ted Turner (founder of CNN), Timothy Berners-Lee (inventor of the Internet) and 25-year-old Kenyan engineer Evans Wadongo, who has developed an inexpensive solar lamp.
The good-bad, stop-start energy was flagging until Dame Shirley Bassey stormed in and bellowed “Diamonds are Forevuuuuuh!” She gave everyone an object lesson in old-fashioned razzle-dazzle and in jump-starting a catatonic audience. They should market her as a defibrillator.
Arnold Schwarzenegger trotted out mercifully brief platitudes. Former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard used his speech to castigate Western degeneracy. Israeli President Shimon Peres was delightfully upbeat. Lech Walesa gave a dignified tribute to his fellow Nobel laureate.
“You wanted to reform the old world, and I wanted to fight against it,” Walesa said from the platform. “I thought I was right and you were wrong. Today, I admit that maybe you were more right than I.”
A tribute to Gorbachev’s deceased wife, Raisa, came with a recent film of him singing (surprisingly well) a sad ballad called “Letters,” intercut with youthful images of the couple. Heartstrings were plucked. Over the last notes of the song a glitter cannon released a shower of foil in front of the screen.
Israel’s Peres, who is 87, offered consolation.
“It’s OK, Mikhail Sergeyevich,” he said. “The first 80 years are the hardest.”
For more information about Mikhail Gorbachev http://www.gorby.ru/en
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)