The organization annually honors a select group of people for their artistic impact on American culture.
WASHINGTON — A heartbroken Patti LaBelle paid tribute to her lifelong friend Gladys Knight. Sean Penn called U2 “four scrappy Dublin punks”. Ballet dancers performed for conductor and composer Tania Levine. Matt Damon openly teased his friend George Clooney — a lot — while Sheryl Crow performed a soulful rendition of “Baby” to Amy Grant during Sunday’s Kennedy Center Honors.
Knight, Clooney, Grant, Levine and U2 were all celebrated. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which annually honors a select group of people for their artistic impact on American culture. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses attended, as did the president’s cabinet and members of Congress.
One audience member from the political world — Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — drew some attention. He is recovering from a brutal attack at the Pelosi’s San Francisco home in October. The couple gave a standing ovation.
Usually an act like U2 or Knight would headline such a show, but during the Kennedy Center program the honorees sat in the balcony watching their bandmates applaud and perform their acts.
On the red carpet, Clooney, with his wife, Amal, by his side, joked that with friends like Don Cheadle and Julia Roberts in attendance, he was worried his tribute would be too “roast.” And it was a bit like that, though his friends and family showed obvious respect.
Roberts set the tone by taking the stage in a dress emblazoned with images of Clooney. After an introduction that vacillated between funny and charming, she was drawn to a set designed to look like a smoky bar — the kind Clooney might enjoy. The actor’s father, Nick Clooney, told stories of a young George, including the time the 7-year-old — heartbroken over the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — gave his father all his toy guns. were
Damon took the funny route, joking about how Clooney once stole then-President Bill Clinton’s stationery and wrote notes to co-stars about it. Cheadle highlighted Clooney’s philanthropic work. But it was Clooney’s father who was perhaps most appreciative, telling the crowd and his son sitting in the balcony between Leon and U2’s Bono, “George’s best and most important work is still ahead of him.
Standing on a stage lit by a large sign reading “Gladys,” LaBelle called Knight her “everything,” saying they had been friends for six decades and had seen each other through laughter and tears. Is. “We do everything together,” LaBelle said. “I am honored to honor you tonight.”
Actor and hip-hop star LL Cool J said that Knight connects with people whenever she sings. “I heard Gladys sing the ABCs once and I thought I was in church,” she said.
Knight — usually with his backup singers, The Pips — recorded dozens of albums with classic hits like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” The classic song was challenged to the woman who made it famous by country music superstar Garth Brooks, a Kennedy Center honoree in her own right. He cites Knight’s “roots in country music” before launching into classical.
Each artist was introduced through a video compilation showing snippets of their lives. In Grant, her children spoke of their mother’s influence on them. Crowe spoke of Grant’s influence on her when she was a young college student.
“Amy also taught me that it’s possible to be funny, irreverent and Christian,” Crowe said.
Five ballet dancers took the stage to honor Leon, who left Cuba as a refugee in 1967. When he left the country, his passport was stamped “Cancelado”. The performers were from the Dance Theater of Harlem, which Levine helped found when she eventually arrived in New York City. She also founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series and won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for her work “Stride,” inspired by women’s rights champion Susan B. Anthony.
“How shall I describe the extent of your musical genius?” asked actress and playwright Anna Dewere Smith. Jazz pianist Jason Moran, singer Alicia Hall Moran and cellist Sterling Elliott performed “Oh Yemanja,” one of Levine’s compositions.
The final honoree of the night was U2. In a video taped Saturday, U2 guitarist The Edge noted that a group of four “Irish boys” were being honored for their contributions to American culture and said there was a connection between the group and America. Which cannot really be explained.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder covered U2’s “High” and “One.” sang Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought his alter ego Anna Borat on stage as part of a U2 tribute, pretending to mistake Biden for former President Donald Trump. Singers Brandy Carlyle, Hoosier and Jamala. — from the U.S., Ireland and Ukraine, respectively — closed the show with an emotional version of “Walk On.”
U2’s Bono is also known for his philanthropic work to end poverty and raise awareness about AIDS. Jamala, whose native Ukraine has been embroiled in nearly a year of bloody war since the Russian invasion, touched on that history of social activism by introducing the final song of the night.
“It is fitting that the night was to honor him, he has once again used his platform to spread the message of peace,” he said. “Honestly, it’s really unusual for me to be in this bright and warm hall this evening, when it’s so dark there in my native Ukraine.
The honorees arrived at the theater from a White House reception where Biden praised them as an “extraordinary group of artists” to a star-studded East Room crowd.
“Thank you for showing us the power of the arts and ‘we the people,'” Biden said.