Throughout our lives, controversy has reared its head whenever technology and entertainment collide. Most of us remember the ad campaign for Memorex audio and videotapes. "Is it live or is it Memorex?" became part of our vernacular, bolstered by the participation of legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald...and one very catchy phrase.
We were there when classic black and white films were colorized, heard the outcries when music was converted to digital formats, and even had opinions when long-dead Fred Astaire was "resurrected" to dance with a Dirt Devil vacuum. Now the advent of photo-realistic holographic technology is upon us, and things are heating up all over again.
The Dirt Devil and Fred Astaire
The first appearance of a holographic character was by actor Michael York for LOGAN'S RUN in 1976, The movie, featuring a very young Farrah Fawcett, depicted a future where computers ran society. The titular character undergoes an interrogation in which his consciousness is broken down to digital fragments, represented by a crude but effective use of mid-seventies holograms.
Logan's Run - First holographic character
Since then, we've seen the return of deceased performers like Buddy Holly, Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, Amy Winehouse, and even Tupac Shakur. Reactions have ranged from "morbid" and "amoral " to "the next best thing to reality". Therein lies the conundrum. Should companies profit from the usage of real persons who no longer have a voice? Is it fair for executors of an entertainer's estate to make decisions on matters such as these? While ethical concerns are valid, it's up to our justice system to determine the legality of it all. But ultimately, it's the audience who will decide whether there's a market for virtual performances.
Las Vegas has a long history of tribute shows and celebrity impersonators. We've seen virtual representations of deceased legends in Cirque du Soleil's The Beatles LOVE and MJ ONE. There are even holographic versions of Elvis, Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe at Bally's EXTRAVAGANZA. Now we can add our first undead headliner to the list.
AN EVENING WITH WHITNEY - THE HOLOGRAM CONCERT is a full-scale production playing at Harrah's main showroom. Despite its name, the representation of Ms. Houston is not an actual hologram. A true hologram is a 360-degree virtual object that you can walk around and observe from any angle. AN EVENING WITH WHITNEY utilizes an intricate combination of computer-generated imagery, motion-capture performances of a stand-in, and carefully-mapped video projections. The effect is somewhat surreal, a little disconcerting, yet ultimately easy to adjust to. Still, you couldn't walk around this "performer"...she's just not there.
Virtual onstage characters aren't true holograms.
You might expect that such a production would be akin to watching a big-screen blockbuster...a passive experience shared In a public place. AN EVENING WITH WHITNEY strives to be more. There are four live musicians performing along with pre-recorded music and vocal tracks. Six highly-skilled dancers move across the stage and throughout the audience. As with any traditional concert, there are lighting effects, rolling fog, a glorious sound mix, and plenty of costume changes. Meticulously-mixed recordings of Ms. Houston's actual voice are delivered by the doppelganger, who looks and moves like the real person.
Your likelihood of being drawn into this show is highly dependent on the ability to suspend disbelief. If you're willing to pretend that you're at an actual Whitney concert, you're apt to have a damned good time. That certainly was the case during the performance this writer attended. Audience members stood up and danced, some shouted "I love you, Whitney" and delivered other enthusiastic platitudes between songs. As for me, it was a tug-of-war between acceptance and skepticism much of the time.
If the purpose of a holographic concert is to create what would otherwise be impossible, then why are there constant reminders of its inherent fakery? It would be easy for the holographic star to gracefully walk offstage between numbers. Instead, we watch her dissolve like a ghostly apparition, and sometimes just disappear into the floor.
Much of the time, the singer's likeness remains front and center. Its body movements are mostly limited to hand gestures, waving of arms, and plenty of smiles. There are no flashy attempts to dance with live performers, no strolling over to coo into the keyboardist's ear. Like a video game character, Whitney pops in, pops out, then returns in another dress for the next round.
The real Ms. Houston was larger than life, but this holographic double could use a bit more wattage. Much has been made of its high digital resolution, yet I found the appearance to be somewhat on the dim side. Also, the avatar seemed a bit small and further to the rear than what would be considered natural. Technology has come a long way since 1976, but there's still some work to be done before we can be totally fooled.
Which begs the question "Why utilize a hologram at all?" As noted above, the rendering is of an impersonator, not archival footage of the actual star. It would be much easier (and cost-effective) to showcase a lip-syncing double. So perhaps this production should be considered "experimental", testing the waters for future ventures.
A cast member informed me that the production actively listens to audience feedback and has already made tweaks. Additional dancers, songs, and choreography have been added since the show's October 2021 debut. It appears to be working, as ticket sales have reportedly increased over time.
As an admitted skeptic, the overall experience left me satisfied, and perhaps curious as to what we can look forward to. Being a fan who deeply regrets never having witnessed performances by the likes of Tina Turner, Tom Jones, and other iconic stars, the concept of hologram concerts ultimately becomes quite exciting. The best way to gauge your own reaction is to experience it for yourself. The execution might not be perfect, but AN EVENING WITH WHITNEY may very well usher in a new era of entertainment.
AN EVENING WITH WHITNEY - The Whitney Houston Hologram Concert performs Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm. The show is appropriate for all ages. Tickets start at $52 (plus taxes/fees) and are available here. TicketKite is currently offering a special deal with savings of up to $22.