Broadcast television is enough of a no-man’s-land around the holidays that it manages to sneak in some old-school celebrate-the-arts programming, featuring very classy people in their tuxes for the benefit of those of us sheltered. We haven’t gotten out of our pajamas in days. Following on from last week’s excellent pre-Christmas Paul Simon tribute special, CBS returned Wednesday night with the “45th Annual Kennedy Center Honors,” offering a beautiful illusion of DC as a functioning city where scrappy rockers, gospel singers and mezzo sopranos are their political rivals. As can reach across the aisle and we are truly a civilized nation united by, among many other things, our shared appreciation for the arts. Don’t just leave news for later to break the spell.
For the second December in a row, we live in a country where a sitting president can actually show his face at an art-based event — and a country where a vice president knows the words and can mouth, “Midnight Train to Georgia” — so that’s something. Which is non-delusional, anyway. The Bidens and Harrises are on hand for a show honoring U2, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight, composer-conductor Tanya Leone and George Clooney, and the fact that the first four of those five musicians provide some natural advantages to this year’s show, as far as all-stars go. Cover-song opportunities go. (Clooney even earned a musical number as part of his salute, though, with Dianne Reeves popping up to serenade the actor-director with “How High the Moon,” a standard he performed in his “Good Night, and Good Luck” film 17 Sung many years ago.)
U2 feels the most underrated of the honorees, as the musical tributes roll out, though that’s not entirely the producers’ fault. As explained, Mary J. Blige was supposed to sing “One,” which she famously performed with the group for a 2005 benefit and subsequent single, but fell ill, so Eddie Vedder was tasked with covering it in addition to his scheduled “Elevation” for the Pearl Jam frontman. You could do worse than pulling urgent double duty to represent the U2 catalog, though it’s not much of a choice to represent something revolutionary, the way the likes of Blige once did. Brandi Carlyle, Hozier and Ukrainian singer Jamala’s trio of “Walk On.” Things get even more interesting as they hook up for the split. It’s a nice symbolic touch that, as much as you’d expect Carlyle to deliver the powerhouse notes, it’s Jamala, representative of a troubled nation, for whom the tune is the greatest showcase. Works. But the end credits kind of step on the climactic vibe that rolls into the back end of the song.
In addition to a heartfelt speech from Sean Penn, a non-enthusiast from Sacha Baron Cohen as U2’s Borat reads a qualified, errant letter from the Kazakh president that means, ‘Please remove your crappy album from my new iPhone 6,’ ” and points out “Hard Choices Facing Our Planet: With or Without the Jews.” A little irreverence (and a little well-deserved Yeh-shaming) goes a long way on a show like this, even if the jokes can read a little funnier on the page than in a buttoned-up environment. Thanks, Anyway, kudos to CBS for keeping all the anti-Semitism stuff (even if they probably would have taken hell to cut Cohen’s routine after it was so widely reported).
Amy Grant receives a well-deserved musical salute, beginning with Sheryl Crow testifying to her secular side with “Baby Baby” and ending with Michael W. Smith, Bebe and Sissy Winans and a choir taking her back. Now! This is what I call worship music The main element of the church begins with “El Shadai” and “Sing your praises to the Lord”. What follows is a two-hour musical highlight: The Highmen (the super-group consisting of Carlyle, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby) alternate lead vocals and provide full four-part harmony to “Somewhere Down the Road.” Grant’s 1997 song about the mystery of death. It’s a comforting song about the existentially uncomfortable idea that, beyond the veil, we don’t know Jack – something that at least some secularists and Christians can agree on – and it would certainly be nice if the Highman version was available as a download.
George Clooney, apparently, seems like the kind of guy for whom the Kennedy Center Honors were invented — seems to have been born in a tux; A nice target for Matt Damon’s jokes; And he has a noted social activism that suggests he could probably call his limo driver the best shortcut through Washington — and the show doesn’t let him down. Julia Roberts begins the introductory part in an already well-photographed Clooney-print dress, Richard Kind promotes her as a Hollywood figure who represents “the generous goodness inherent in humanity”, and Damon celebrates her as “a man who once defecated on Richard”. Kind of a kitty litter box as a joke.”
Clooney himself appears in footage of a State Department ribbon-cutting ceremony and is seen punching Damon, saying, “I’ve been lucky enough to meet millions of people, and they all agree: ‘You suck Batman.'”
Those clips of the actual honorees point to an inherent flaw in the “Kennedy Center” system: Audiences want to sing or speak, at least in Clooney’s case. After years off the road, seeing U2 perform together for a number, especially with another artist, would have been swell (imagine the Bono/Brandy possibilities!). Part of what makes this night different from others, KCH flame keepers sure believe — is that those being celebrated look good in their balcony seats, not suffering from nerves about their own performance responsibilities. But at this late date, if not the song, it seems reasonable to at least think about reviving the format for honorific speeches, especially when eloquent figures like Bono and Clooney are reduced to a series of reaction shots.
Yet this year’s show is nothing short of cozy bath-warming, with such an irresistible cast of award-winners and guests – and the accomplished Ricky Minor as music director who can cater to all styles of music on offer, from live, classical to something suitably thrash-sounding. up to the rocks
About Knight, host LL Cool J said, “I once heard Gladys Knight sing ABC and I thought I was in church. True story.” It’s a tough legacy to live up to, but Wesley Morris is quoted in an introductory film as saying that he “made us all his peeps,” with a wealth of talent on hand to sustain him, as Garth Brooks points out in “Midnight Train to Georgia”‘s country origins to her friend of six decades, Patti LaBelle, leading to the inevitable “That’s What Friends Are For” group-song. “You’re The Best Thing That Happened To Me” and Ariana DeBose, “I Heard It Through The Mickey Guyton proved a great pick to carry the torch with Grapevine” — on top of that “SNL gig no.” Someone forgot — that there really aren’t any awards or variety shows he shouldn’t be booked for if his calendar is open.
Tanya Leone is one of the five who probably wouldn’t count as a household name in most American households, but here the show is about artistic and social justice, as a major network gives quality airtime to artists like classical pianist Chloe Flower, Harlem dancers with dance theater “Tumbao.” “Serving. That kind of performance is something we’ll never see again at the Grammys, that’s for sure. So here at “The Kennedy Center Honors” is one of the last places where Anna Daven Smith can suddenly appear in our living room and make us feel like we should be wearing something a little more formal than our Santa PJs.