Kennedy Center Honors George, Gladys & U2

U2, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight, George Clooney, and Tania León were recognized for their achievements in the performing arts during THE 45TH ANNUAL KENNEDY CENTER HONORS. (Photo property of Gail Schulman/CBS)
U2, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight, George Clooney, and Tania León were recognized for their achievements in the performing arts during THE 45TH ANNUAL KENNEDY CENTER HONORS. (Photo property of Gail Schulman/CBS)

By: Jacob Elyachar,

The Kennedy Center Honors celebrate the best of the performing arts every year. Since the ceremony began in 1978, countless individuals have been honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Previous honorees include Debbie Allen, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Sir Elton John, Billy Joel, Carole King, David Letterman, Sir Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey, and the late Aretha Franklin, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Ray Charles, and Elizabeth Taylor. This year’s illustrious group includes actor George Clooney, music legends Amy Grant and Gladys Knight, composer Tania León, and iconic rock band U2. 

The Kennedy Center Honors started with a powerful intro from past honorees Garth Brooks, Carmen de Lavallade, Big Bird, Herbie Hancock, Michael Tilson Thomas, Chita Rivera, and host LL Cool J. After the honorees and both President Biden and Vice President Harris and their spouses made their entrances, it was time to get down to business.

2017 Honoree LL Cool J kicked off the Empress of Soul’s Kennedy Center Honors tribute and praised her for being a versatile artist. Last year, Gladys Knight paid homage to country music icon Garth Brooks at the 2020 Kennedy Center Honors. This year, “The Dance” performer returned the favor and performed “Midnight Train to Georgia” with the Pips. After a video piece on Gladys’s history, Oscar winner Ariana DeBose sang an outstanding rearrangement of “I Heard Through the Grapevine.”

LL Cool J introduced Mickey Guyton, who paid tribute to her hero with “The Going Ups and Coming Downs.” Knight’s longtime friend, the Queen of Rock and Soul, Patti LaBelle, received a standing ovation from the crowd. She assembled Garth Brooks, Mickey Guyton, and Ariana DeBose to sing the classic anthem “That’s What Friends Are For.”

After a clip of President Biden praising George Clooney at the Medallion Ceremony, longtime collaborator Julia Roberts, who wore a dress made out of photos of the actor, proclaimed that Clooney was “our renaissance man.” The Kennedy Center next transported the audience to a bar on stage. Jazz singer Dianne Reeves sang the standard “How High the Moon,” which she recorded for the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. George’s father, Nick Clooney, made a surprise appearance and told the audience how he surrendered his toy guns after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Richard Kind spoke about George Clooney’s rise in the film career and how Spencer Tracy’s monologue in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner reflected George Clooney’s manhood and artistry. 

Once Brad Pitt finished narrating a clip show of George Clooney’s career that featured clips from Batman & Robin, E.R., the Ocean’s trilogy, and his advocacy, Matt Damon gave a humorous speech that featured a childhood photo of George Clooney. However, his fellow Ocean’s actor concluded his toast by adding that it was an honor to call his Ocean’s franchise colleague “a friend.” Meanwhile, Don Cheadle spoke about his advocacy during the Darfur crisis and the Clooney Foundation for Justice. 

Television news legend Katie Couric paid homage to Amy Grant, mentioning selling 30 million worldwide, six Grammys, and her marriage to Vince Gill. I was happy to see her children and grandchildren pay tribute to Ms. Grant. Longtime friend Sheryl Crow sang “Baby Baby,” sounding the same as her “All I Wanna Do” days. The Highwomen paid homage to Ms. Grant, who they called Amy Grant, “the porch light to their crowded table.” The country music supergroup performed “Somewhere Down the Road. For the finale, Katie Couric introduced gospel singers BeBe and CeCe Winans and longtime collaborator Michael W. Smith, who performed “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.”

Actress Anna Deavere Smith paid homage to Tania León. As a piano played in the background, we learned Tania’s origin story and how she left her home country of Cuba and arrived in the United States. Composer Chloe Flower performed one of Ms. León’s pieces as the Dance Theatre of Harlem performers danced on the Kennedy Center stage. Next, musician Jason Moran and his wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran performed a haunting aria. Anna Deavere Smith introduced the Kennedy Center Orchestra, who performed the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Stride,” which honored the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification.

Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Finneas narrated a powerful video tribute to kickstart U2’s Kennedy Center Honors portion. Sean Penn praised U2’s stamp on the music industry and called them “great musical poets for the ages.” Eddie Vedder sang “Elevation,” while Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) made jabs at former President Trump and tackled Kanye West’s antisemitism while making fun of U2’s free album that ticked off iPhone users. After Sean Penn restored order to the show, he revealed that Eddie Vedder stepped in for an ailing Mary J. Blige to perform “One.” It was a spellbinding performance! Hozier and Brandi Carlile ended the evening with “Walk On.”

Copyright 2020 Jacob Elyachar