After five long years, the Kennedy Center Honors are finally back in full force. How can we be sure? Because almost no one mentioned its return to normal during a weekend of festivities that culminated Sunday in a slightly more than three-hour ceremony celebrating five new honorees.
This time last year, Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks hailed the ceremony, which featured a star-studded crowd in black tie and masks, as a “return to something like normal.” This year we can cut the “something like.” And indeed, President Biden and first lady Jill Biden were back for a second year after four “first couple”-less years thanks to a presidential boycott during the Trump years and the ensuing pandemic, which led to a mostly virtual show for the 2020 awards (held in May 2021). Joining them were Vice President Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. Saturday’s medallion ceremony was back in its proper place at the State Department after being at the Library of Congress last year. And everyone — we mean everyone — seemed to be in the mood to celebrate.
Luckily for them, the ceremony — held in the arts center’s 2,364-seat Opera House and honoring actor, filmmaker and philanthropist George Clooney; contemporary Christian music sensation-turned-pop-star Amy Grant; the “Empress of Soul,” singer Gladys Knight; Irish rock band U2 (Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.); and Cuban American composer-conductor Tania León — was, naturally, a mostly musical affair.
Take a look around when the Pips were cooing or the Highwomen were belting, and you were likely to see someone familiar clapping along, be it Anthony S. Fauci, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), actor Laurence Fishburne, Biden adviser Mitch Landrieu or, of course, the president — you name it.
The night proceeded like clockwork. The nominees were praised in five segments, each featuring a semi-biographical video with notable voice-overs (actor Brad Pitt for Clooney, critic Wesley Morris for Knight), clips from Saturday’s medallion ceremony, a few speakers and a couple of (usually musical!) set pieces.
Celebration of the 61-year-old Clooney, as the only nonmusical artist honored, proved the exception. It began with a humorous introduction by former honorees Big Bird and jazz legend Herbie Hancock — a strange pair sure, but like peanut butter and pickles, it worked. As Hancock said, “The Kennedy Center is a place for everybody who lives in America — even birds.”
Julia Roberts, ever the fashionista, took the stage in a dress decorated with an unusual pattern — all images of Clooney — and dubbed her friend a “Renaissance man.” The screen then lifted to reveal a set re-creating an old barroom. At the small tables, sipping cocktails, sat Roberts along with actors Richard Kind, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and, most notably, Clooney’s father, Nick. After Dianne Reeves performed a song from the 2005 movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which Clooney wrote and directed, each stood to give a short monologue about the actor.
Cheadle praised Clooney’s humanitarian work, particularly (he said half-winkingly) marrying Amal Alamuddin and starting the Clooney Foundation for Justice. Kind discussed the honoree’s long journey to stardom, expressing excitement of what’s to come. Damon mentioned that Clooney is often called “the last true movie star,” which struck him as incorrect given Clooney’s penchant for practical jokes.
Clooney’s father, though, told a touching story about the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Nick Clooney was hosting a television show at the time, and, as he was preparing a speech about the tragic day, his 7-year-old son walked into the room with a bag full of his toy guns. He didn’t want them anymore. Nick ripped up the speech. What could be more eloquent, after all.
The rest of the evening required dancing shoes — or at least a little seat-dancing. A sign reading “Gladys” in lights hung above the set for Knight, 78, where the Pips were joined by Garth Brooks for “Midnight Train to Georgia”; Mickey Guyton for “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me”; and Ariana DeBose for a heck of a rockin’ version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The Pips left the stage as Patti LaBelle sauntered on and called Brooks, Guyton and DeBose back for a touching rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For.”
Journalist Katie Couric introduced Grant’s segment, calling her music the “perfect elixir for a troubled time and troubled souls” before performances by Sheryl Crow and the Highwomen (Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires) before gospel singers BeBe & CeCe Winans belted out “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.”
Previous honoree Carmen de Lavallade introduced the tribute to 79-year-old composer León, who left Cuba as a 24-year-old refugee and was receiving this award only one year after earning the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in music. It featured multiple performances, including vocalist Alicia Hall Moran’s resounding take on “Oh Yemanja” from the opera “Scourge of the Hyacinths” and a rendition of León’s Pulitzer-winning composition, “Stride,” by the Kennedy Center Honors Orchestra, members of the Sphinx Organization, cellist Joe Kwon of Avett Brothers and conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson. Actress Anna Deavere Smith narrated the story of León’s life story from Cuba to the United States, detailing such moments of significance as Leonard Bernstein discovering her at Tanglewood.
The night ended with praise for the Irish rock band U2, known for its anthemic rock tunes, receiving the honor on the verge of its fifth decade together. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder took the stage to play covers of “Elevation” and “One,” and Sean Penn offered a touching speech about the band’s prolific philanthropy. But the showstopping moment (for good or ill, depending on your personal constitution) was probably Cohen, reprising his Borat character to praise the band “by the name of Me 2.”
“Please remove your wretched album from my iPhone 6,” Borat implored, later adding another request: “Your band fight oppressions from around the world. Stop it!”
The irreverent jokes kept the crowd lightly chuckling, the final segment featuring Ukrainian singer-songwriter Jamala, Irish musician Hozier and Carlile singing U2′s “Walk On” as many other performers from the evening — including Morris, Reeves, Guyton and Crow — joined in to close out the event with a note of exuberant joy.
On Saturday, the honorees had gathered at the State Department with a gaggle of special guests — a mixture of political and artistic stars — to share a dinner and receive their medallions. No one, though, was given a more generous welcome than a behatted Paul Pelosi, who received a thunderous standing ovation. He joined his wife, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), at the dinner, and again at Sunday’s ceremony, in a couple of his first public appearances after being attacked during a home invasion at the end of October.
Underlying the cheerful nature of Saturday night’s ceremony was a strong message of the importance of the arts to the global community. In his welcoming remarks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to artists of all stripes as “diplomats” and said, “You don’t need to speak English to feel something when you listen to ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ ” Brooks echoed the sentiment, saying, “Art not only connects us, it binds us.”
The honorees received tailored toasts from various celebrities. Of note was Roberts, whose outfit again played a part in her praise. She donned a green dress, read a self-written limerick to U2 and invited the quartet onstage for an intimate toast of black velvets — Guinness mixed with champagne. She added that at 55, she’s been lucky to “never know a life without their music.”
The honorees, who didn’t speak during Sunday’s ceremony, then each offered a few words of their own, all hammering home the point of art as a communal good, something that brings us together.
Clooney, meanwhile, reiterated the night’s theme of art-as-togetherness, joking that he’s traveled the world and everyone agrees on one thing: “You sucked as Batman.”
Sonia Rao contributed to this report.