U2 was in the house, and so were George Clooney, Gladys Knight, Amy Grant and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and conductor Tania Leon. To say expectations were high for Sunday night’s (Dec. 6) 45th iteration of the Kennedy Center Honors would be an understatement.
And they were largely, if unevenly, met at the star-studded event attended by President Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was accompanied by her husband Paul Pelosi, donning a hat and glove on one hand, who made his first public appearance since being beaten in October in their San Francisco home.
Knight had performed for 2020 honoree Garth Brooks, who hosted this year’s State Department dinner the preceding night where the honorees received their medallions, and he returned the courtesy by performing her hit “Midnight Train to Georgia,” while schooling the audience on the song’s country roots.
Ariana DeBose talked about how she listened to Knight’s music growing up in North Carolina before launching into “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And a teary-eyed Patti LaBelle honored her “sister-friend” with stories of their personal and professional bond through six decades before launching into “That’s What Friends Are For.”
LL Cool J had high praise for one of his musical heroes. “Like stars in the night’s sky, Gladys Knight illuminates everyone in her orbit,” he said, adding, “I once heard Gladys sing the ABCs and I thought I was in church.”
On the red carpet before the show, Knight was all smiles about getting to spend time with the current President. ”I feel like he’s my brother. We go way back, and he has such a tender heart,” she said.
Julia Roberts set the stage for the Clooney tribute wearing a gown embellished with photos of her longtime friend. After doing a bit of good-natured roasting she applauded him for being “profoundly present and attentive to the world outside of himself” and calling Clooney “the best combination of a gentleman and a playmate.”
The roasting continued with Richard Kind declaring “we could solve world problems if everyone could agree” the way they do about Clooney’s failed run as the Dark Knight in 1997’s Batman & Robin, and Matt Damon sharing that Clooney once defecated in Kind’s kitty litter box and stole stationery from then-President Bill Clinton and wrote notes to fellow actors on it.
But there was plenty of focus on Clooney’s humanitarian efforts, which began at a very young age. His father, Nick Clooney, shared a story about how a 7-year-old George gave up all his toy guns because he was so heartbroken after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Don Cheadle spoke about his efforts working with Clooney to help the people of Sudan’s Darfur region and how the two recently co-founded a school.
Asked before the show whether being in D.C. had made him reconsider a once-rumored second career in politics, Clooney turned to his wife Amal and said, “Nah. We have a very nice life.”
Cuban-born Leon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for composing the orchestral work Stride that was inspired by the activism of Susan B. Anthony, was feted, among others, by pianist, producer and composer Chloe Flower; members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz Jason Moran; and composer and opera singer Alicia Hall Moran, who noted Leon’s works “are crafted moments in time, inspired by art and history and nature.”
Speaking before the show, Leon said she was inspired by the opportunity to be in the White House, which she’d never visited as a tourist. “All this is going to hit me. After I get home and I settle in and have a little bit of tea, I know this is going to do something to me,” she said.
Grant is the first contemporary Christian artist to be bestowed a rainbow lanyard. Outspoken in her support for the LGBTQ+ community, she’s been pushing musical and cultural boundaries for decades. Of her guiding principle, she told Billboard, “My mother said to me, and what I say to my children, ‘You have to wrap your arms around your own life, and no one can hear your heart but you.’ “
Her segment focused on her dedication to faith and family. Katie Couric called her “the perfect elixir for troubled minds and troubled souls.” Sheryl Crow noted, “Amy taught me it’s possible to be funny, irreverent and Christian at the same time” before breaking into a rendition of Grant’s No. 1 hit “Baby Baby,” which, it turns out, Grant was inspired to write when one of her daughters was an infant.
Gospel duo BeBe & CeCe Winans lent their soaring vocals to a medley of Grant tunes, as did all of the Highwomen—Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.
Speaking with Billboard pre-show, Carlile talked about how moved she was being able to perform for both Grant and U2 at the show.
“The thing about those two that touches me the most deeply is that they play out their music, their ambassadorship, their philanthropy through a faith-based lens, really the Christian faith, right on their sleeve, which is a difficult subject for me and people like me,” she said.
“We’ve all been a little bit marginalized by that faith and for some of us it’s a source of a lot of trauma. And so the way that U2 and Amy Grant have really come out and publicly supported LGBTQIA people, it’s been really healing and life-affirming for a lot of us. So it’s the least I can do to be here tonight.”
Which brings us to the show-closing tribute to U2 members Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., which began with a compelling video featuring Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Finneas reciting some of the band’s poignant lyrics. Credit to Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who poured his all into “Elevation” and “One,” the latter of which was a last-minute addition after Mary J. Blige had to bow out due to illness.
Just as things were picking up momentum and it seemed the audience may be ready to rise from their seats for some dancing, Sacha Baron Cohen appeared on stage in character as his alter-ego Borat Sagdiyev, the dimwitted journalist from Kazakhstan.
Yes, any time Borat shows up you can expect it to get weird and yes, he was hysterical, riffing on everything from his confusion that President Trump was no longer in office to Kanye West’s recent fall from grace: “He even tried to move to Kazakhstan, and he even changed his name to Kazakhstan-ye West. But we said no, he’s too antisemitic even for us.”
But his banter had very little to do with U2 and seemed an odd way to use the band’s allotted time. When Carlile came back out, joined by Hozier, to perform a rendition of “Walk On,” it felt like a bit of a rushed finale when many of the night’s previous performers appeared back on stage.
This is, after all, U2, one of the most celebrated rock bands of all time with 22 Grammys, 170 million albums sold worldwide and only the fifth band to be inducted in Kennedy Center Honors history. To not have included more music, no songs from their defining 1987 album The Joshua Tree, no crescendo’ing anthems, just seemed like a missed opportunity.
Overall, the event hit plenty of high notes, with elevated stage designs and pacing for each honoree thanks to new production partner Done + Dusted, and multiple presenters echoing words spoken the previous night by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken: “Ultimately, these artists remind us of our common humanity, that no matter who we are or where we’re from… we are all moved by the arts.”
The 2022 Kennedy Center Honors will air Wednesday, December 28 at 8pm on CBS and stream on sister network Paramount+.