The Kennedy Center Honors showcased the breadth of American music Sunday night with emotionally charged performances celebrating the gospel roots of Mavis Staples, the honeyed vocals of James Taylor and the Southern California harmonies of the Eagles.
The 39th annual celebration of lifetime achievement in the performing arts also honored actor Al Pacino and pianist Martha Argerich in a three-hour party that offered a wistful goodbye to Barack and Michelle Obama, who were hosting their last Honors tribute. The sold-out audience stood and cheered for several minutes when the president and first lady were introduced.
Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein thanked them for their steadfast support over the past eight years, while host Stephen Colbert mined the wistful occasion for laughs.
“We can agree that the White House has given us a leader who is passionate, intelligent and dignified,” Colbert said to the delight of the audience, which cheered for several minutes as Obama stood and waved. “Sir, I don’t know why you stood up, I was talking about Michelle.”
Three grandchildren of President John F. Kennedy shared their admiration for the outgoing president. “We also want to give a special thanks to President Obama for carrying [Kennedy’s] legacy into the new century and for showing us all that politics still can be a noble profession,” said Jack Schlossberg, son of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who was joined by sisters Tatiana and Rose on the Opera House stage.
In keeping with tradition, the honorees sat with the president and the first lady, waving and blowing kisses as a parade of stars — including Bonnie Raitt, Sean Penn and Ringo Starr — took the stage. There were many looks of surprise (the A-listers who will appear in the tributes are closely held secrets) and a few blinked back tears in the audience. But mostly there was joy from the president’s box as the honorees were treated to one moving tribute after another.
Producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment — in their second turn at the helm of the ceremony — shared video from the weekend’s private receptions at the White House and the State Department, allowing the audience to hear the honorees react to the festivities.
“I thought it was a perk of this award that I didn’t have to say anything,” Pacino said after receiving his medal from Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
Colbert returned for a third year as host of the event, a black-tie affair that raised about $6 million for the arts center. A version will be broadcast by CBS on Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. Rubenstein announced that CBS’s contract to broadcast the annual event has been extended through 2025.
The tributes began with Bill Clinton praising Taylor, a singer-songwriter whom the former president described as a friend.
“His influence in our lives goes way beyond his contributions to the American songbook,” Clinton said. “His music and lyrics are the seams in the fabric of our national life.”
As if to make the case, country singer Darius Rucker performed a bit of Taylor’s signature “Sweet Baby James” before seguing into “Carolina in My Mind.”
Sheryl Crow was next with a medley of “Fire and Rain” and “Your Smiling Face.” Garth Brooks performed “Shower the People” before being joined by Rucker, Crow and the Howard University Choir for “How Sweet It Is. ” The number allowed everyone in the theater to show their affection by serenading Taylor with the night’s most fitting lyric, “How sweet it is to be loved by you.”
The segment honoring Pacino was perhaps the evening’s most eclectic. While the New York City-born actor built a career playing con men and gangsters, including his best-known role as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” his co-stars described him as a generous co-star and advocate for creativity and the arts. Actors Sean Penn, Chris O’Donnell and Bobby Cannavale shared stories of working with Pacino and thanked him for sharing his gifts.
“I don’t think there’s an actor from the last five decades who has been more influential than Al Pacino,” said Cannavale, who co-starred with Pacino on Broadway in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and in the movie “Danny Collins.”
Kevin Spacey offered the audience a three-step tutorial for doing an Al Pacino impression, Laurence Fishburne and Lily Rabe recited poetry from three Shakespeare plays, and O’Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar re-created their famous tango from the film “Scent of a Woman” — a film that earned Pacino an Oscar.
“The joy of sharing the stage — your home — with you was a privilege of my life,” said Rabe, who appeared with Pacino on Broadway in “The Merchant of Venice.”
The segment ended with a highlights reel of Pacino’s best moments from some of his four dozen movies, including “Serpico,” “Donnie Brasco” “Any Given Sunday” and, of course, “The Godfather.”
Gospel and R&B singer Staples was praised as a genre-blurring artist whose six-decade career has featured collaborations with Van Morrison, Billy Preston, Bruce Hornsby and Chuck D.
Staples began singing with her father and siblings as a member of the Staple Singers, performing at civil rights marches in the 1950s and at Kennedy’s inauguration.
Actor Don Cheadle celebrated her continued work on social issues: “The message of truth, in pitch-perfect harmony, demonstrates the power of art to change.”
“Mavis Staples is a revelation, it’s as simple as that,” said singer Bonnie Raitt.
Country rocker Elle King took the stage to serenade Staples with two of her anthems, “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” before Raitt returned to the stage with Andra Day for a powerful duet of “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Freedom Highway.”
Actor Jeff Goldblum introduced the tribute to Argerich, a child prodigy who burst onto the music scene in 1957 by winning two piano competitions. Goldblum praised the Argentine-born musician for her technique and instinctive artistry, saying she imbued centuries-old compositions with vibrancy and immediacy.
President Obama added his own praise. “Martha has been guided by one passion, and that is fidelity to the music,” Obama said during the White House ceremony. “The result is timeless, transcendent music.”
To celebrate her career, pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Itzak Perlman performed a Beethoven sonata. “I am feeling lucky to be living during your lifetime,” Perlman said.
Plácido Domingo introduced pianist Yuja Wang, who delivered a blistering performance of Astor Piazzola’s “Grand Tango.”
The evening concluded with an emotional tribute to the Eagles, one of the most influential and commercially successful American rock bands of all time. Ringo Starr introduced members Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit, who were joined by Glenn Frey’s widow, Cynthia.
“Well done, boys, and peace and love to everybody,” said Starr, who happens to be Walsh’s brother-in-law, and Kings of Leon took the stage to perform “Take it Easy,” the first number of a rocking finale.
The Eagles were supposed to be part of last year’s production, but the members postponed their acceptance when Frey became ill. The band’s co-founder died in January, and his absence added a melancholy note to the finale.
“2016 couldn’t have had a harder beginning or a more appropriate ending,” said Irving Azoff, the group’s longtime manager, choking back tears.
“We are grateful to be born and raised in a nation where dreams still can come true,” Henley said at the State Department dinner. “I want to dedicate this evening to our brother, Glenn. He was the driving force of this band. He believed in that American dream.”
Vince Gill’s rendition of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” drew tears from more than a few in the audience, and Bob Seger’s rocking “Heartache Tonight,” an Eagles’ hit he co-wrote with Frey, brought the crowd to its feet.
The Colombian musician Juanes earned the privilege of performing “Hotel California” before everyone jammed to the final number, “Life in the Fast Lane.”