WASHINGTON — Actor Al Pacino, the rock band the Eagles, Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, singer Mavis Staples, and singer-songwriter James Taylor were celebrated Sunday at a colorful and fast-paced version of the 39th Kennedy Center Honors. The program will be broadcast Dec. 27 on CBS.
The program was again emceed by Stephen Colbert, host of CBS’ “The Late Show,” who wasted nary a minute before goading his favorite target, Donald Trump. He said the names of the new honorees have been enshrined on the wall behind him, a wall that “Mexico says it will not pay for.”
In their second year co-producing the event, Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment continued to adjust the format devised by founding Kennedy Center Honors producer George Stevens Jr. and partners.
For starters, the honorees were introduced individually at the outset as they entered the presidential box, followed by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who received a lengthy ovation from the packed Opera House. The single biographical film for each segment has been replaced with two or three short videos focusing on early lives and careers, as well as video insights into specific topics as warranted. In addition, the look and feel of the show has been enhanced with a new wavy rainbow backdrop and a fast-paced delivery of individual tributes.
But Kirshner and Weiss held fast to one solid tradition — surprising the Kennedy Center audience with the talent lineup.
The surprises began immediately with the tribute to Taylor. Out stepped former President Clinton to salute the honoree for embellishing the fabric of American life with his music and lyrics. Clinton reminisced about Taylor’s appearances to assist worthy causes like promoting peace in Northern Ireland. Musical tributes were offered by singers Sheryl Crow (“Fire and Rain”) and Garth Brooks (“Shower the People”).
The Pacino tribute included three video clips: a biography narrated by Meryl Streep, a lively video of the actor’s memorable film scenes, and another narrated by Pacino on the art of acting. Other participants included actors Chris O’Donnell and Sean Penn, scenes from Shakespeare performed by Laurence Fishburne and Lily Rabe, and an entertaining tutorial by actor Kevin Spacey on how to impersonate Pacino.
The tribute to singer Staples was hosted by Bonnie Raitt, who praised the artist for her vocal abilities and her dedication to civil rights. Raitt and others sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Other participants included rock singer Elle King, actor Don Cheadle, and the Howard Gospel Choir.
Musically, the show relied most heavily on the 13-member Rickey Minor Band, supported by the Kennedy Center Orchestra.
On hand to fete honoree Argerich with a Beethoven sonata were violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Yefim Bronfman, while tenor Placido Domingo introduced the young pianist Yuja Wang. Actor Jeff Goldblum offered additional support for the artist’s toast.
The show’s finale for the Eagles included a biographical film narrated by Linda Ronstadt, an introduction by Ringo Starr, and a barrage of Eagles faves from the Kings of Leon (“Take It Easy”), Juanes, Bob Seger (“Heartache Tonight”), and Steuart Smith (“Hotel California”). In addition, Vince Gill offered “Peaceful Easy Feeling” as a tribute to the band’s late member, Glenn Frey, who died in January at age 67.
The Sunday gala was again preceded by a private dinner the previous evening at the U.S. State Department, where honorees were presented with their distinctive rainbow ribbons by KenCen chairman David Rubenstein. On hand were some 200 guests that included the center’s board members, performing artists, and key members of Congress.
Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry drew a standing ovation for his final polished performance as the evening’s official host.
The event’s surprise emcee was actor Spacey, who strolled to the podium to issue a silky “Good Evening” in full Frank Underwood drawl. “I am honored to be the only sitting president to attend this dinner,” he said of the menacing anti-hero on “House of Cards.” Later came a succession of impersonations that included Johnny Carson, President John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Jack Lemmon.
Spacey also delivered the first of several Trump barbs from the lineup of speakers. He said that in his “day job” with the Netflix series, “I want to emphasize that I play the president. I’m pretending to be a politician. Sound familiar? It’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s a real politician and who’s just playing one on television.”
Others included actor Penn, who began his testimonial to pal Pacino with an unofficial “scoop” from the president-elect. “He just tweeted, ‘I hear the Kennedy Center Honor is overrated.’” Penn discussed his longstanding friendship with Pacino and his lasting impact on his profession. He ended by saying that Pacino is living proof that the honors are not overrated.
Pacino told the gathering that he owed much of his success to New York producer Martin Bregman (“Scarface”), who was seated at his table. Pacino said that while appearing in a tiny New York theater in 1966, he was visited back stage by the unknown audience member who “gave me his card and said, ‘kid, I want to see you. It’s important.’” The lasting managerial relationship “changed my life,” he said.
The salute to the Eagles was delivered by the band’s longtime manager, Irving Azoff, who cited the group’s well known insistence of perfection and commitment to principles. Band member Henley spoke for the group and dedicated the evening to “our brother Glenn, who was the driving force of this band.” Ending on a political note, Henley said “it is our fervent hope that going forward, [musicians] will still be able to make their dreams come true, if Google doesn’t destroy what’s left of the music industry!”
The tribute to pianist Argerich was presented by past KenCen honoree Leon Fleisher, who recounted their meetings “in dingy concert hall green rooms all around the world.” He called them “inappropriate settings for expressing one’s enthusiasm and admiration for this blazing comet” whose brilliance overwhelms the listener. “Here, finally, is a setting befitting this goddess of the piano.”
Honoree Taylor was lauded by Raitt for his musical talents and passion for worthwhile causes. Past honoree Herbie Hancock praised singer Staples as an inspiration to musicians of all ages for over six decades. He said that long before meeting Staples, he spent his summers during his college years delivering mail in a Southside Chicago neighborhood. Said Hancock: “I was her mailman. I delivered mail to her door!”
(Pictured: 2016 Honorees Al Pacino, Mavis Staples and Martha Argerich)