Jet Li

So is the glass half empty or half full? To its credit, CBS still airs this classy, eclectic tribute to the finest in the arts, though it's relegated to the otherwise-dormant week between Christmas and New Year's. Whatever the commercial considerations, "The Kennedy Center Honors" remains a premier event, and a rare occasion where the genuine warmth of the televised tributes stands in welcome contrast to most kudo showcases.

So is the glass half empty or half full? To its credit, CBS still airs this classy, eclectic tribute to the finest in the arts, though it’s relegated to the otherwise-dormant week between Christmas and New Year’s. Whatever the commercial considerations, “The Kennedy Center Honors” remains a premier event, and a rare occasion where the genuine warmth of the televised tributes stands in welcome contrast to most kudo showcases.

The operative word here remains “honors,” which fosters a festive but relaxed atmosphere. Aiding in that is the notion of honorees coming from such disparate fields, with Motown legend Smokey Robinson alongside Nashville’s Dolly Parton, conductor Zubin Mehta next to legit impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber and Steven Spielberg, whom host Caroline Kennedy quaintly introduces as the world’s “storyteller in chief.”

Where else, after all, will viewers see an impromptu sing-along of Robinson’s lilting “My Girl” break out, with Tom Hanks, Shania Twain and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among the participants? Similarly, where but on PBS during pledge week would one encounter a duet of “Memory” by Betty Buckley and Sarah Brightman, belted out during the tribute to Lloyd Webber?

This isn’t to suggest the honors, presided over by producer George Stevens Jr., are without their clunky moments, from some of the strained reaction shots to covers of the Robinson songs that, frankly, pale compared to his own versions. In a peculiar twist, the 2006 telecast has also gained some notoriety for what isn’t in it, with Jessica Simpson’s botched performance of Parton’s “Nine to Five” having been left on the cutting-room floor, reportedly at Simpson’s own request.

Yet the prevailing atmosphere is one that truly celebrates the arts as noble endeavors worth embracing and exalting, and the joyous look on Spielberg’s face in his concluding segment is the kind of moment even the geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic couldn’t fabricate.

There is, undoubtedly, something decidedly old-fashioned about the entire exercise, recalling old-time variety shows and life-achievement dinners. (As for the commander in chief, the fleeting reaction shots of President Bush find him appearing a trifle uncomfortable at times, though he does bob his head a bit in response to the Motown medley, which proves strangely reassuring.)

Throwback or not, that the Kennedy Center kudos continue to command space on a major network seems right, as does the ideal of D.C. and Hollywood (the state of mind more than the town) finding common points of interest when the divide has grown during the last half-dozen years of Republican governance.

Sure, there might be a culture war and all, but just about anybody can sway to those Robinson tunes, thrill to those Spielberg movies, admire Mehta wielding a baton, hum the “Cats” soundtrack, and who won’t always love Dolly Parton?

The 29th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

CBS; Tue. Dec. 26, 9 p.m.

Production

Produced by Kennedy Center Television Prods. Producer, George Stevens Jr.; coordinating producer, Danette Herman; line producer, Bill Urban; director, Louis J. Horvitz; writers, Stevens, Sara Lukinson, Michael Stevens.

Crew

Production design, Brian Stonestreet; music, Rob Mathes, Rob Berman. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Host: Caroline Kennedy.
Honorees: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, Steven Spielberg.

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