38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

CBS

Aired December 29, 2015

Aretha Franklin brought down the house and should’ve just dropped the mic to emphasize her lesson to all on how to properly steal a show. That’s how dominant the legend was when she performed at the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

The event honored a broad mix of artists and art:  actress, singer, dancer, and overall icon Rita Moreno; cinema titan George Lucas; legendary star of stage and screen Cicely Tyson; long-time conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Seiji Ozawa; and singer and prolific song-writer Carole King.

The special never felt too avant-garde or too commercial. A cellist was balanced by a Muppet drummer. Broadway numbers were balanced by classic pop tracks. A look back at commercial cinema franchises was balanced by a look back at a series of films and plays that spoke brutally and honestly about race. The balancing act kept the show accessible to a broad audience.

Stephen Colbert hosted and brought the jokes in small spurts to keep the mood light and move things along. His one playful dig came at President Barack Obama’s expense when the leader of the free world showed up late to join First Lady Michelle with the honorees in the VIP box. Other than that, politics was largely—and thankfully—avoided in monologues.

The first honoree up for praise was Rita Moreno who was introduced by actress Gina Rodriguez with an emotional, personal story of inspiration. Rita’s journey was then presented in a video montage which included her early years as an actress playing feisty ethnic characters and led up to her breakout role as Anita in West Side Story. Her participation in the Sesame Street TV series, as well as in another kids’ favorite show of the time The Electric Company, was also highlighted. However, we have to file our disappointment that our personal favorite Rita character, Sister Pete on the HBO series Oz, was not mentioned.

We were surprised to learn that after it was suggested early in her career that she change her name to one that sounded less ethnic, the actress originally known as Rosa Dolores chose to change her name to “Rita” as a tribute to her hero, another legendary Hispanic actress (whose father was from Spain) who also decided to change her name in order for it to sound more Anglo—in that case, Margarita (Rita) Cansino became Rita Hayworth.

A rendition of the classic number “America” from West Side Story was performed, and later Rosie Perez sang an amusing version of “Fever” with Animal of The Muppets on drums as homage to a classic Rita sketch.  

We were also reminded that Rita has won a Tony, Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy during her lifetime. One of the few people in history to achieve the feat, it only adds to her legend, and speaks to her broad range of talents.

George Lucas was up next. Introduced via a holographic homage to a classic Star Wars scene (“help me Obi Wan Kanobi… you’re my only hope”) Carrie Fisher began the accolades followed right after by George’s own wife, right from their VIP box. The visit down Star Wars memory lane then began in a video narrated by James Earl Jones (aka, the voice of Darth Vader) that explored George’s early years, his fascination with Flash Gordon, his early successes with THX 1138 and American Graffiti, and his ultimate signature movie Star Wars.

Then the heavy-hitters came out for George. Steven Spielberg extolled praise on him for his innovations with the technology of CGI, and Martin Scorsese followed with words about Indiana Jones. Nice friends to have if you’re in the film-making business. We were treated to various scenes from both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises accompanied by a live orchestra and laser lights. What could’ve easily turned out as the pop cinema vomit portion of the show was instead treated tastefully and with just as much importance (within context) as the other art featured in the special.

Cicely Tyson was the next honoree, introduced by actor, producer, and overall mogul Tyler Perry with an amusing but poignant personal story. A retrospective video followed that included bits about Cicely’s birth in Harlem to Caribbean parents, her early struggles, and eventual rise to prominence in film, stage, and the Black Movement. Classics such as the movie Sounder and the ground-breaking miniseries Roots were showcased, then current Hollywood stars Viola Davis and Kerry Washington each came on to focus on Cicely’s importance to the acting world as well as her importance to the African-American community with regards to Cicely’s personal ventures into local arts programs in NYC and Jersey to help minorities in the arts. Washington also shared a touching story that revealed how Cicely regularly pays tribute to her late husband, the legendary jazz icon Miles Davis.

To wrap up Cicely’s story, Cece Winans came out to perform the powerful gospel hymn “Blessed Assurance” that brought Cicely to tears, and should’ve been the showstopper of the night… but Aretha would have something to say about that later, though that doesn’t take away from Cece’s performance at all. Her pitch-perfect singing bellowed out by some of the most powerful yet controlled pipes in the business was truly a treat. 

Next, it was Seiji Ozawa’s turn to be commemorated. From friend and fellow musical genius John Williams (who served as narrator of Seiji’s video tribute) we learned a lot about the wild-haired conductor, including that he was born to Japanese parents in China, returned to Japan just after the Second World War, and his participation in a rugby match (despite Seiji’s bean-stalk frame) was the main factor in his decision to abandon his dream of becoming a classic pianist for the goal of becoming a conductor. His arrival in America soon found him involved with Tanglewood, and eventually resulted in his hiring as the conductor of the BSO, a position he held for nearly thirty years. But it was his joie de vivre, as Williams put it, that made Seiji stand out, and Williams cited an event where Seiji conducted the score of Williams’ classic film ET that brought out different textures and made the composition sound different. 

For someone with Seiji’s gravitas, only the heaviest of heavy-hitters would do for a musical tribute. So out stepped cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile.”

To follow that with pop fare might seem nonsensical, if not a disaster. But the pop we’re referring to wasn’t trivial or shortsighted. It was the diverse collection of songs written by hit-maker Carole King who is responsible for some of the most popular and some of the most heartfelt singles of the 20th Century.

The person who introduced her was a curious choice:  Secretary of State John Kerry. A “neighbor” of Carole’s (from Martha’s Vineyard?), he’s also apparently a longtime fan. But Kerry’s usual flat delivery and rigid posture made for a dull introduction. A quick cutaway shot to Barack Obama showed the President almost snarling during Kerry’s speech, though it’s tough to read much into that snapshot in time.

Once Kerry’s introduction of Carole was over, the cast of Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King  Musical took over to tell the story of a young songwriter with connections to some of the era’s biggest hit-makers. We were reminded of some of the acts that she wrote for, a list that included Tony Orlando, The Drifters, The Chiffons, and The Shirelles. Janelle Monae and a duo of backup singers then performed “Tonight You’re Mine” and “One Fine Day.”

The Broadway players returned for more of their shtick before introducing Carole’s ex-husband James Taylor who performed “Up on the Roof.” Carole delighted in the surprise but was even more blown away when one of her best-known songs, “You’ve Got a Friend,” was later sung by Sara Bareilles while on piano, complete with cutaway shots to the Obamas singing along.

The major tribute came soon thereafter when Aretha was introduced to perform “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” and the legend, draped in a long fur coat, took her spot at the piano. Her vocals didn’t show a hint of wear as she casually tackled the initial verses, then rose from the piano, dropped the fur from her shoulders to the applause of the rising-from-their-seats-in-awe crowd as she attacked the remainder of the song and absolutely slayed the audience.

During the early stages of the song Aretha managed to bring tears to the eyes of both Carole and the President of the freaking United States. Who else does that? Not many besides one of the greatest voices of the 20th Century singing one of the greatest songs of the era, written by one of its greatest songwriters.

Please, Aretha, drop that mic…

But she was too classy to indulge in such an arrogant gesture. Instead, her performance spoke for itself.

The show should’ve ended there, but it couldn’t. The prerequisite jam session followed where performers from earlier in the show joined together to sing Carole’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” It was a fairly rousing performance, but coming after Aretha’s showstopper, the finale felt like a salad served after the steak. 

Other than that, the episode was an entertaining two-hour journey of nostalgia, fun, and art education. 
 


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