By Paul Farhi
Monday, December 7, 2009
The great thing about the Kennedy Center Honors show isn't the honorees themselves -- though they're pretty great, or they wouldn't be honorees in the first place -- but the kind of high-low cultural mash-ups that celebrate their life's work. The nearly three-hour performance is like the world's most glittering variety revue, the best "Ed Sullivan Show" ever.
In one made-for-TV evening Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, you got: a mini-opera recital, a madcap Broadway medley, a rock and jazz concert and a whole bunch of famous and accomplished people who've probably never encountered each other before and likely won't again. Jack Black and Aretha Franklin? Philip Seymour Hoffman and Eddie Vedder? Yeah.
With the five rainbow-ribbon-bedecked honorees -- Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro and Bruce Springsteen -- sitting next to the president and Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the first row of the mezzanine, the Kennedy Center rolled out the tributes in song, dance, film and speeches.
Each of the big five got his or her due, but Springsteen, perhaps as you might expect, got the rousing finale. Before a backdrop of the Asbury Park, N.J., boardwalk, a gloriously loud band punched out some familiar Springsteen songs, including "Glory Days" and "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," before John Mellencamp blasted "Born in the U.S.A." The very proper tuxedoed-and-begowned crowd couldn't resist a lusty "Bruuuuuce!" Sting, Ben Harper, Melissa Etheridge, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland -- all of them took a whack at the Boss's catalogue.
Springsteen, sitting to Michelle Obama's immediate right, mostly took it all in, beaming, head bobbing in time. As is customary, neither he nor the other honorees took the stage to accept the awards. But Sting, supported by a massive chorus, got the president, Springsteen and the crowd on its feet with a singalong version of "The Rising."
There were quieter moments, too. The tribute to De Niro was almost a solemn affair, but one with massive star power. Meryl Streep, who starred with De Niro in "The Deer Hunter," praised his acting talent but also attested to his loyalty and friendship. Martin Scorsese, who directed De Niro in some of his most memorable roles ("Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "The King of Comedy," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and on and on), said De Niro "saw humanity in [characters] who at first glance seemed inhuman."
Then he gave way to a stageful of former De Niro co-stars -- Sharon Stone, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel and Ben Stiller, who traded praise for the man. Stiller noted that he, like De Niro, has won some acting accolades, too, like "two Teen Choice Awards. . . . So I think the Kennedy Center Honor evens things out."
Aretha Franklin, wrapped in a light-blue sari (did she miss the state dinner for the Indian prime minister?), led off the accolades for Bumbry, a revered opera singer and teacher. Franklin, who acknowledged that she knew something about being a diva, called her "Amazing Grace," a girl from a modest background from the Midwest who grew into one of the world's great sopranos and mezzo-sopranos.
Bumbry is the least widely known of the honorees, her triumphs occurring primarily in Europe, and many more than a generation ago. She was the only one of the five honorees who is from the fine arts, and the only woman and African American in the group.
Brubeck's salute came, appropriately, on his birthday, his 89th. Herbie Hancock offered, "Dave Brubeck is the reason I don't have a day job." When Hancock was a young man, he said, "if you were playing Dave's music on your stereo, you were cool." Brubeck's most famous song, "Take Five," overshadows much of his work, but it's not like he's a one-hit wonder. A jazz quintet, abetted by the U.S. Army's Jazz Ambassadors big band and Hancock, ripped through "Take Five," and then swung into a stomping take on Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Brubeck's four sons chipped in piano, trombone, trumpet and drum solos in their father's honor.
Brooks's sequence was the most merrily daffy, and how could it fail to be? It started pleasantly enough -- with Frank Langella singing the forgotten theme song from the all-but-forgotten Brooks film "The Twelve Chairs" -- but revved quickly into absurdist Brooksian territory. Martin Short rode a full-size palomino (plastic) while singing the theme from "Blazing Saddles," followed by Black as a singing Robin Hood from "Men in Tights."
Segue to Harry Connick Jr. crooning "High Anxiety" from atop a moving stage lift, thence to dancing Nazis and headdress-wearing showgirls from "The Producers" ("Glee's" Matthew Morrison serving as the Nazi emcee). Matthew Broderick restored order with "I Want to Be a Producer," from Brooks's huge Broadway hit. (The entire sequence was directed by Susan Stroman, who directed the multiple-Tony Award-winning show in New York.)
Jon Stewart, introducing the Springsteen segment, offered perhaps the single most concise description of the Boss: "I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby." Added Stewart, "Whenever I see Bruce Springsteen do anything, he empties the tank every time, bar none."
In the chaotic A-list traffic jam that was the red-carpet arrivals before the show, Brooks, De Niro and Springsteen (who arrived concurrently with Aretha Franklin) breezed through the line, oblivious to the massed press (or maybe just late). But at least Brooks set up his arrival with a gag.
Carl Reiner, Brooks's old friend and collaborator ("The 2,000 Year Old Man") tipped reporters that Brooks had turned down the Kennedy Center Honors twice before. Ask him why, Reiner coached the waiting media. Replied Brooks when asked, "Because I didn't like what they were serving."
CBS will broadcast two hours of highlights from the gala on Dec. 29 at 9 p.m.