Broadcast television is enough of a no-man’s-land right around the holidays that some old-school celebrate-the-arts programming manages to sneak in, offering the sight of very classy people in their tuxes for the benefit of those of us who haven’t gotten out of our pajamas in a couple of days. On the heels of last week’s excellent pre-Christmas Paul Simon tribute special, CBS is back on Wednesday night with “The 45th Annual Kennedy Center Honors,” offering a beautiful illusion of D.C. as a functional city in which scrappy rockers, gospel singers and mezzo sopranos can reach across the aisle, just like their political counterparts, and we really are a civilized nation united by, among so many other things, our shared appreciation for the arts. Just don’t leave the news on afterward to break the spell.
For the second December in a row, we do live in a country where the sitting president can actually show his face at an arts-based ceremony — and in a nation where the vice president knows the words to, and can mouth along with, “Midnight Train to Georgia” — so that’s something non-illusory, anyway. The Bidens and Harrises are on hand for a program honoring U2, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight, composer-conductor Tania León and George Clooney, and the fact that the first four of those five this year are musicians offers some natural advantages to putting on a show, as far as all-star cover-song opportunities go. (Even Clooney earns a musical number as part of his salute, though, as Dianne Reeves pops up to serenade the actor-director with “How High the Moon,” a standard she sang in his “Good Night, and Good Luck” film 17 years ago.)
U2 feels like the most underserved of the honorees, as the musical tributes roll out, although that’s not entirely the fault of the producers. As is 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 that in addition to his scheduled “Elevation.” You could do worse than to have Pearl Jam’s frontman be the one pressed into emergency double duty in representing the U2 catalog, even though it’s too on-the-nose a pick to represent something transformative, the way the choice of Blige once did. Things get more interesting as Brandi Carlile, Hozier and the Ukrainian singer Jamala hook up for a three-way split of “Walk On.” It’s sort of a lovely symbolic touch that, as much as you expect Carlile to be charged with delivering the powerhouse notes, it’s the representative of an embattled nation, Jamala, for whom the tune serves as the greatest showcase. But having the end credits roll over the back end of the song does kind of step on the climactic vibe.
Besides an earnest speech from Sean Penn, U2 also merits an un-earnest one from Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, reading a faux letter from the Kazakhstani president that “translates to mean, ‘Please remove your wretched album from my new iPhone 6,’” and pointing out “the difficult choice facing our planet: with or without Jews.” A little irreverence (and a little well-deserved Ye-shaming) goes a long way in a show like this, even if the jokes may read a tad funnier on the page than they come off in the buttoned-up atmosphere. Kudos, anyway, to CBS for keeping all the anti-antisemitism stuff in (even if they probably would have taken hell for cutting it after Cohen’s routine was so widely reported).
Amy Grant gets a very well-rounded musical salute, which begins with Sheryl Crow testifying to her secular side with “Baby Baby” and ends with Michael W. Smith, BeBe and CeCe Winans and a choir taking it back to her Now! That’s What I Call Worship Music beginnings with a medley of the church staples “El Shaddai” and “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” What comes between is the musical highlight of the two hours: the Highwomen (the super-group consisting of Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby) alternating lead vocals and giving full four-part harmony to “Somewhere Down the Road,” Grant’s 1997 song about the mysteries of mortality. It’s a comforting song about the existentially discomforting idea that, beyond the veil, we don’t know jack — something maybe at least some secularists and Christians can agree on — and it’d sure be nice to have the Highwomen’s version available as a download.
George Clooney, frankly, seems like the kind of guy for whom the Kennedy Center Honors were invented — looks like was born in a tux; is a graceful target for Matt Damon’s jokes; and has a renowned social activism that suggests he could probably tell his limo driver the best shortcuts through Washington — and the show doesn’t let him down. Julia Roberts kicks off the introductory segment in an already well-photographed Clooney-print dress, Richard Kind elevates him as a Hollywood figure who represents “the inherent liberal goodness of humanity,” and Damon celebrates him as “a man who once defecated in Richard Kind’s kitty litter box as a joke.”
Clooney himself appears in footage of a State Department ribbon-bestowing ceremony and is seen as beating Damon to the punch by saying, “I’ve been lucky enough to meet millions of people, and they all without exception agree: ‘You suck at Batman.’”
Those clips of the actual honorees do point up one inherent flaw in the “Kennedy Center” system: The audience wants to see them sing, too, or talk, at least, in Clooney’s case. After years off the road, it would have been swell to see U2 back together in performance for even one number, especially in tandem with another artist (imagine the Bono/Brandi possibilities!). It’s part of what makes this night unlike most others, the keepers of the KCH flame surely believe — that those being celebrated get to bask, and look beatific in their balcony seats, not suffer nerves about about their own performance duties. But it sure seems reasonable at this late date to at least think about rejiggering the format to allow for honoree speeches, if not songs, especially when figures as eloquent as Bono and Clooney are reduced to a series of reaction shots.
Yet this year’s show is never anything less than as warming as a comfortable bath, with such an unassailable roster of awardees and cast of guests — and with the accomplished Rickey Minor as the musical director who can meet all the styles of music being represented where they live, from classical to some suitably thrashy-sounding rock.
Of Knight, presenter LL Cool J says, “I once heard Gladys Knight sing the ABCs, and I thought I was in church. True story.” That’s a hard legacy to live up to, but to the extent that Wesley Morris is quoted in an introductory film as saying she “made us all her Pips,” there’s a wealth of appropriate talent on hand to uphold her, from Garth Brooks pointing out the country origins of “Midnight Train to Georgia” to her friend of six decades, Patti LaBelle, leading the inevitable “That’s What Friends Are For” group-sing. Mickey Guyton proves a great pick to carry the torch forward with “You’re the Best Thing That Happened to Me,” and Ariana DeBose, with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” further establishes — on top of that “SNL gig no one’s forgotten — that there is really no awards or variety show she should not be booked for if her calendar’s open.
Tania León is the one of the five who will probably not count as a household name for most American homes, but here’s where the show is about artistic as well as social justice, as a major network gives quality airtime to artists like classical pianist Chloe Flower, performing “Tumbao” with the Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers. This type of performance is something we’re never going to see on the Grammys again, that’s for certain. So here’s to “The Kennedy Center Honors” as one of the last places where Anna Devere Smith is likely to suddenly show up in our living rooms and make us feel like we should’ve been wearing something a little more formal than our Santa PJs.