May 24, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

For some viewers, one of the unexpected highlights of last night’s Idol finale was surely Green Day’s performance of their new cover of what may well have been John Lennon’s finest solo tune, “Working Class Hero.” It was a powerful rendition, restrained yet full of intensity — everything your average Idol moment ain’t, in other words. It even came with a good cause: Green Day recorded the song for Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur, an all-star compilation of new Lennon covers whose proceeds will go toward ending the ongoing genocide in Sudan. (The CD will be in stores June 12; you can already donate $0.99 by buying Green Day’s single or R.E.M.’s “#9 Dream” cover on iTunes. To raise even more money for Darfur, Green Day have designed a limited-edition “Working Class Hero” t-shirt available soon at Hard Rock Cafe.) You couldn’t have asked for a better proof that the show’s commitment to social justice extends beyond their special “Idol Gives Back” episode — or that Green Day are rapidly becoming this decade’s most eloquent protest musicians.

A few weeks back, I was able to sit in on a shoot for Green Day’s “Working Class Hero” music video in Brooklyn. Billie Joe and his bandmates weren’t there, unfortunately — they’d already filmed their scenes on the West Coast — but what I saw there was far more compelling than any lip-synched performance could have been. Director Sam Bayer, Amnesty International representatives, various crew members, and several survivors of the Darfur conflict had gathered in the spacious, light-filled studio. Grouped together in twos and threes, the refugees stepped before Bayer’s cameras to talk about the horrors that have befallen their homeland — truly harrowing stuff. “I’m lucky to escape to USA,” Assad Doutoum, who left Darfur last September, told me after filming his part. “But I miss my wife, my family — my sister, my brother, my mother, my father — I don’t know exactly where they are now, [whether] they died. I wish by this project to send my message to all the people, to know what is happening in Darfur. It’s still happening now.”

Later on, Bayer — an accomplished director whose long list of credits includes iconic videos from the ’90s (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; Blind Melon’s “No Rain”; Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”) to the present day (all the videos for Green Day’s 2004 LP American Idiot; Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around…”), sat down for an exclusive on-set chat about Lennon’s legacy, honoring the survivors’ experiences, and why this clip could be his last.

addCredit(“Billie Joe Armstrong: Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty”)

PopWatch: How did you become involved with this project?
Sam Bayer:
Well, I’ve worked with Green Day a bunch in thepast, and an old friend of mine from Warner Bros. came to me withthis. And as soon as they started talking about doing something to helpDarfur, I was in. If you can educate some people out there andentertain them at the same time, I think it’s a really good thing.

What’s this video going to look like when it’s done?
I look at this old John Lennon footage, like the sit-in in ’68, and there’s very much a pseudo-documentary quality to thatstuff, like handheld 16mm film. So we’re doing the video in black andwhite, and I’m trying to keep the spirit of John Lennon in the footage.I think it’s got the feeling of something that could have been made inthe late ’60s, early ’70s — you know, when people gave a s— aboutchanging the world. And that I really mean.

How will today’s footage fit into the video?

I want to cut some of [the survivors’] stories into the video, andI want MTV to play this. We were choking up filming it. If I can getone soundbite — the guy that told me his father got killed in front ofhim was making me tear up. I think that this can be a really importantvideo. These people have a lot of courage.

How does making a video like this compare to making a typical pop video?
Oh, I mean, this is actually worthwhile. I’m trying to givesomething back. And it’s completely different. I want people to buy therecord, if people still buy records.

What else do you have coming up? I can’t imagine what it must be like to follow up this kind of project.
I think this will probably be the last music video I ever make.You’re asking me — it’s kind of impossible to go back. It’d be very hardto go back and do another music video after this.

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