Marking its 30th year, the Kennedy Center Honors effortlessly achieves the celebratory tone to which most award shows can only aspire. This year’s edition of the honors, invariably a mixed bag in its tributes, delivers a couple of transcendent moments: Steve Carell’s riotous turn honoring Steve Martin, and the simple loveliness of a boys choir serenading the stoic Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson while beach balls descend from the rafters to be joyously batted around by the black-tie crowd. Although scheduled in recent years as more an obligation than an event, the honors remain one of TV’s classiest evenings.
“His act was that of an idiot savant. Minus the savant,” Carell deadpans about Martin, after initially beginning with praise for the already-feted Martin Scorsese.
Not everything works, of course, and concocting a stage show to synopsize Martin’s eclectic career — a strange hodge- podge of comedy, magic and banjo music — proves a little awkward. For the most part, though, producer George Stevens Jr. (who has been at the helm since the outset) conveys a true sense of love for the arts, from the various singers and choir belting out Diana Ross tunes as the tearful diva beams to the classical performance geared to pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher.
The show truly soars, however, in the section for Wilson, with Hootie and the Blowfish and Lyle Lovett offering intriguing spins on Beach Boys songs, followed by the choral rendition of “Love and Mercy” — an emotional highlight that again brings Ross to tears, dampened only by Wilson’s unflinching demeanor. (His troubled past is alluded to somewhat obliquely, a rare moment of sobriety in an otherwise festive night.)
Admittedly, the Kennedy Center Honors is written off to some extent as an old-fogey special, and even its demographic concessions — including “American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks, say, in the Ross medley — can’t really dispel that image. Hence CBS’ decision to relegate the annual telecast to the pre-New Year’s ghetto.
Still, there’s something wonderful about seeing these luminaries from varied disciplines and those recognizing them side by side under one big tent — a demonstration of unity that seems especially rare and welcome this season, both in Washington and Hollywood.