The Kennedy Center Honors: Seven recipients and a whole lotta love

December 2, 2012

Here’s a sentence you won’t read every day: The president and first lady sat down with the members of Led Zeppelin, a former prima ballerina and Dustin Hoffman on Sunday night. And, um, Buddy Guy and David Letterman were there, too.

In other words, an unusual but somehow typical crew looked down from the main mezzanine box at the Kennedy Center for the 35th annual Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday.

As usual, the Honors — part performing arts carnival, part hall-of-fame induction ceremony, part fundraiser and fancy-schmancy dinner — had a little something for its honorees and a lot for everyone else.

There were TV stars saluting a TV superstar (Letterman); exquisite dancing (in tribute to honoree Natalia Makarova); a great movie actor, Robert DeNiro, attesting to the chops of an acting icon (Hoffman); raucous blues (for Guy); and even raucous-er classic rock (for Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones).

President Obama, during pre-ceremony remarks at the White House, noted correctly that such an unlikely collection of artists “had no business being on the same stage together” and that his speechwriters had struggled to find a smooth transition from “ballet to Led Zeppelin.”

The Washington Post’s Ned Martel talks to stars on the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors. The annual awards were given to Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Buddy Guy, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Natalia Makarova for their cultural contributions to the nation. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)

The ceremony itself featured the high, the low and quite a few things in between.

In honor of Makarova, who defected from the Soviet Union to the West in 1970, dancers performed pieces from her signature roles in “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Makarova, attired in red-and-black head scarf and gown, watched in apparent delight. She was, incidentally, overlooking the same stage on which she was badly injured in 1982 when she was hit by falling scenery equipment during a performance of “On Your Toes” (undaunted by a gashed head and broken shoulder blade, she made it to the Broadway opening of the show two months later — and won a Tony for her performance).

Morgan Freeman, introducing fellow Mississippian Guy, said the musician “mastered the soul of gutbucket” blues and created “a bridge from blues to rock ‘n’ roll.” Which was a pretty good segue for tribute performances by Tracy Chapman, guitar legend Jeff Beck (accompanying Beth Hart on a soulful “I’d Rather Go Blind”) and Bonnie Raitt. The massed performance of “Sweet Home Chicago” had everyone on the lower level of the house on their feet (the grownups in the mezzanine stayed seated).

Letterman, who has probably made more people laugh than just about anyone in human history, was lauded by Tina Fey, who explained that Letterman “began his career as a choreographer and black opera singer in the 1950s.” She called him a national treasure “like the Grand Canyon, the Chicago skyline or the top two Kardashians.” Letterman, among many others, laughed heartily.

Alec Baldwin did his own Top 10 list (“Top 10 Reasons David Letterman Is Getting a Kennedy Centers Honor”), which stiffed except for his veiled reference to Jay Leno (“No. 7: He didn’t leave late-night for a six-month stint in primetime”).

Jimmy Kimmel, a late-night heir of Letterman’s, noted that in high school, he started a David Letterman fan club, and this became “the reason I would fail to make love to a live woman for many, many years.”

For the big finale, there was, of course, Led Zeppelin, which rated four musical numbers and overflowing, hilariously overwrought praise from presenter Jack Black (“They sang songs about love, about Vikings, about Vikings making love!”).

Then came Foo Fighters, with usual frontman Dave Grohl banging away on drums (connection: He teamed with Zep bassist John Paul Jones in the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures); they thrashed admirably through “Black Dog” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Kid Rock (Kid Rock?) was surprisingly credible on a medley of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Ramble On.” And Lenny Kravitz gave a reading of “Whole Lotta Love” that was worthy of Plant himself.

Producers George and Michael Stevens set the musicians in front of an enormous backdrop of a gloomy and decrepit gothic church. There were seizure-inducing strobes, bottom-rumbling bass lines and smoke effects, which may be why a small group of older folks tiptoed out. The whole thing suggested both a Zeppelin arena concert in the ’70s and a bit of the Stonehenge set in “Spinal Tap.” When it was over, no one held up a lighter.

And then, inevitably, for the big windup: “Stairway to Heaven,” sung by Heart’s Ann Wilson backed by Nancy Wilson on guitar and a giant choir wearing bowler hats. On drums was Jason Bonham (son of, and sometime stand-in for, the late John Bonham, he of the bowler hat and Led Zeppelin’s fourth member).

In addition to the honorees, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, the Honors attracted its usual crowd of swells and Important Folks dining out on who knows whose dime. Among others, there were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, White House adviser David Axelrod, Glenn Close, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Colbert, Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Cal Ripken Jr., CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, CBS morning host Charlie Rose, “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory, jazz musician Herbie Hancock and former Honors recipient Yo Yo Ma.

The Honors ceremony will be shown on CBS on Dec. 26.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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