WASHINGTON – For the tenderhearted Amy Grant, it was about the “shared joy” of the experience.
Gladys Knight beamed and said receiving a renowned cultural honor from President Joe Biden resonated with her most deeply because “I feel like he’s my brother, I’ve been knowing him so long.”
“We have a nice life,” he said, an apparent – and diplomatic – “no.”
The trio, along with the rock legends in U2 and Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer/conductor Tania León, were feted Dec. 4 at the 45th Kennedy Center Honors in Washington.
The special airs Wednesday on CBS (8 EST/PST) and livestreams on Paramount+.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden took their customary place in the presidential box inside the grand Kennedy Center Opera House, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined them with her husband, Paul, who wore a black hat and black glove on his left hand as he recovers from an attack by an intruder in the couple's San Francisco home in October.
The typically bipartisan guest list – including Sens. Mitt Romney, Mike Lee, Joe Manchin and Patrick Leahy as well as Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg – also encompassed a slew of entertainment luminaries enlisted to pay homage to the honorees.
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Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Garth Brooks, Sean Penn, Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile and Mickey Guyton headed the lineup of musical and spoken tributes, along with a couple of unconventional guests: Big Bird – who lumbered onstage to tweak Clooney – and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen), whose goofy rendition of U2’s “With or Without You” was prefaced with a rare political detour: “Kanye (West) tried to move to Kazakhstan (Borat’s home country) and we said no. He’s too antisemitic, even for us.”
Here are some key moments from the event.
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The Empress of Soul “illuminates everything and everyone in her orbit,” according to LL Cool J, who joyfully introduced the diverse spate of musicians to honor Knight.
Brooks, cowboy hat firmly in place as he patted his chest, squeezed his eyes shut and dug out his falsetto, imbued “Midnight Train to Georgia” with his usual heartfelt energy before Guyton, resplendent in a gold gown, slayed Knight’s soaring psalm of resilience, “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” her voice gliding up the scale at song’s end.
Ariana DeBose added a slinky touch and a little Broadway verve to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” as she twirled around the stage with three current-day Pips. But it was the arrival of Patti LaBelle that prompted a standing ovation before the R&B dynamo said a word.
“You’re my sister friend, my everything, for six decades,” she said, tearing up as she addressed Knight. The performance culminated – fittingly – with “That’s What Friends are For,” with Brooks, Guyton and DeBose trying to stay out of LaBelle’s way as she ad-libbed roof-raising vocal runs.
In a video clip showing the honorees at the earlier White House reception where they received their medals, Clooney joked that no matter where he goes in the world, everyone agrees: “I sucked as Batman.”
His easygoing sense of humor was challenged immediately when longtime pal Julia Roberts emerged to flash a trademark grin and joke, “I’m here for Gladys Knight. Can’t you tell?”
But it was Clooney as Renaissance Man that was celebrated, with Roberts calling him “the best combination of gentleman and playmate,” powerhouse jazz singer Dianne Reeves belting “How High the Moon” (as she did in the Clooney-directed “Good Night, and Good Luck”) and Don Cheadle highlighting Clooney’s dedication to humanitarianism.
The stage setting – a dimly lit bar – allowed for the surprises to land easily as the spotlight roamed. Clooney’s father, Nick, 88, his TV anchorman voice still resonant, shared his pride in his son. “He has never stopped surprising me, never stopped learning. ... George’s best and most important work is still ahead of him.”
Richard Kind, a friend of Clooney’s since the pair starred in a failed sitcom pilot 30 years ago, jested that “there is not one bottle of Casamigos on this set” – referencing the tequila line co-founded by Clooney in 2013.
After a Brad Pitt-narrated video overview of Clooney’s accomplishments, Damon further teased “everyone’s sixth-favorite Batman” and shared one of the infamous prankster’s greatest hits: stealing President Bill Clinton’s stationery and writing fake notes to actors saying how much he loved their work.
As the first contemporary Christian artist to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, Grant is already a trailblazer. But the extent of her reach – from gospel to pop, sacred to secular – was heralded to significant effect.
Both Broadway legend Chita Rivera and news personality Katie Couric canvassed Grant’s 40-plus-year career, with Couric calling her music, “the perfect elixir for troubled times and troubled souls.”
Crow, who bopped through “Baby Baby,” Grant’s massive crossover hit from the early ‘90s that hasn’t lost a step of its giddy bounce, shared that Grant’s emergence during Crow’s college years taught her that “it was possible to be funny, irreverent and Christian at the same time.”
Singer Natalie Hemby extolled Grant’s kindness before being joined by her fellow singers in The Highwomen – Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires – to harmonize gloriously on “Somewhere Down the Road.”
But it was the combination of “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” and “El Shaddai” that exemplified the touchstones of a career balanced in pop and Christianity as BeBe and CeCe Winans, backed by Grant’s lifetime musical partner, Michael W. Smith, on piano and the Howard University Gospel Choir, alternately skyrocketed and calmed.
The backstory of the Cuban-born conductor, composer and classical music aficionado is one of triumph, and as shared during the ceremony, also a love story with her piano.
León, who left Cuba for New York City in 1967 and co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem has become a “teacher, a mentor and a guru” who has “crafted moments in time inspired by art, history and nature,” according to vocalist Alicia Hall Moran, who celebrated León with “Oh Yemanja” with husband Jason Moran on piano and Sterling Elliott on cello.
A rhythmic piano piece composed by León – “Tumbao” – was presented by Chloe Flower, accompanied by five young, female dancers form the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but it was León’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Stride,” performed by the Kennedy Center Honors Orchestra and members of the Sphinx Organization that most captivated with intermittent trombone bleat and timpanis turning it into an ominous march.
Of the 244 musicians acknowledged by the Kennedy Center Honors, the “four scrappy Dublin punks” in U2, as they were christened by Penn, are only the fifth band to receive the distinction.
A subdued but focused Penn praised their “sonic landscapes” and called them “the most consistently relevant band in history.”
A poignant video featuring Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Finneas reciting U2’s lyrics as footage of them performing throughout the decades flashed on screen was merely the warm up to Vedder storming the stage for a pulverizing “Elevation.” The song unfolded in full-throttle rock-show form, with pulsing red and white lights and Vedder grabbing the mic stand in Bono’s favorite stance (a forward lean).
Vedder returned in place of Mary J. Blige, who Penn said was ill and unable to perform, to handle “One,” the band’s Biblical poetry backed by a chugging beat before Carlile, joined by Hozier and Ukrainian singer Jamala, collaborated on their anthemic hymn, “Walk On,” from U2’s stunning album from 2000, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
The song’s inspirational bent proved an apt show closer, as Guyton, Crow, Smith, Morris, Dianne Reeves and BeBe Winans returned to belt the chorus as a shower of gold flakes fell from the rafters.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kennedy Center Honors 2022 cheer Clooney, U2, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight