Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Kennedy Center Honors 2018: A Review

I've been following the Kennedy Center Honors for circa ten years, admiring how there is at least one night to salute people in film, television, theater, dance, and music (classical to rock) that have contributed to the cultural life of America and the world.  Every year, I would watch and be impressed by just how much great art was being produced.

However, in 2012, I skipped the show.  The idea of sitting through a salute to David Letterman and Led Zeppelin was simply too intolerable after having endured the idea that Oprah Winfrey was somehow an 'artist'.  Many things Lady O is, but someone on the same level as Lucille Ball or Johnny Carson she is not. 

As an alternative, I have submitted ten recommendations totaling 60 people.  Since I began my retrospective, a few suggestions have found themselves honored and a few have died. The following is an alphabetical list of my recommendations, with one asterisk meaning honored, two meaning dead. Three asterisks are for those who have died since the original post was written. 

John Adams
Vladimir Ashkenazy
Emanuel Ax
Burt Bacharach *** 
Shirley Bassey
David Bowie**
Monserrat Caballé**
Shirley Caesar
Michael Caine
Carol Channing ***
Francis Ford Coppola
Albert Finney ***
Gloria Estafan *
John Fogerty
Jane Fonda
Harrison Ford
Phillip Glass *
Gene Hackman
Herbie Hancock *
Dustin Hoffman *
Billy Joel *
Frank Langella
Annie Lennox
Sophia Loren
Sidney Lumet **
Shirley MacLaine *
David Mamet
Wynton Marsalis
Keiko Matsui
Reba McEntire *
Ian McKellen
Loreena McKennitt
Marian McPartland **
Liza Minnelli
Joni Mitchell
Mary Tyler Moore **
Rita Moreno *
Bill Murray
R. Carlos Nakai
Bob Newhart
Maureen O'Hara **
Peter O'Toole **
Christopher Parkening
Bernadette Peters
Malcolm John "Dr. John" Rebennack, Jr. ***
Diana Rigg ***
Lionel Ritchie *
Carlos Santana *
Martin Sheen
Carly Simon
Maggie Smith
Mike Stoller
George Strait
James Taylor *
Kiri Te Kanawa
Eli Wallach **
Betty White ***
Nancy Wilson**
Neil Young
Franco Zefirelli ***

At a time when we're told how important 'representation' is, we can break down my recommendations as such: Men: 33, Women: 25, Minorities: 14.

Breaking it down even further: 5 African-Americans (Bassey being British, would not count as 'African-American'), 2 Asians, 4 Hispanics, 1 Native American (as prima ballerina Maria Tallchief is the only Native American honoree so far).

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With this year's Kennedy Center Honors, the Kennedy Center has dropped the pretense of actually being about lifetime achievement and has opted to be another glitzy awards show. It was a curious hodgepodge of honorees, some highly worthy, some clearly embarrassing to get the 'young kids' interested.

The honorees were as follows: Cher, Philip Glass, Reba McEntire, Wayne Shorter and "the creators of 'Hamilton': Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire and Andy Blankenbuehler.

There were several breaks in tradition for this year's KCH. One was the honoring of the creative team of a musical show whose average age is 42, which I find odd for something touted as a 'lifetime achievement award' (the other honorees' average age is a mere 75 with the youngest, McEntire, being 63). Second was that these same average-age-42 honorees performed on stage, thus making me wonder why one work merited 'lifetime' recognition.

Curiously though, the "creators of 'Hamilton'" did not sit in the honoree's box seats. Rather, they were in the audience, albeit slightly removed from the other audience members.

I can't quite include the nature of the presentations as a third, but for some time now the Kennedy Center Honors has moved away from their traditional format of having someone speak about a particular honoree, then show a film about his/her work and conclude with performances honoring said honoree.

The choppy nature of the individual presentations was meant to be a shift from the perceived stale nature of the show, but what I think has happened instead is it has essentially removed all context of what makes the honoree's work, struggle, success or triumphs important.

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Take Glass' section for example. We had former Honoree Paul Simon talk about Glass then go to a performance of Glass' work by Jon Batiste. The performance itself was brilliant, but there was no explanation as to why Glass' work is so revolutionary, no mention of how he came to be so minimalistic as to drive some listeners crazy and some to rapture.

Instead, we got some performances of his work which to someone not versed in Glass would be odd to confusing to boring. You had a performance of music from his score to Koyaanisqatsi, but whoever hadn't seen or heard of the documentary would wonder what it was all about.

As a side note, the camera work for this segment seemed to be as crazy as a 'Life Out of Balance'.

Again and again I think the honoree's were short-changed by not putting their life's work placed in some context. I'm puzzled as to why for example despite it being a lifelong dream that she accomplished, no footage of McEntire as Annie Oakley in the Annie Get Your Gun revival was used (unless there isn't any). I'm sure there's a soundtrack which they could have put over pictures of McEntire as Oakley, so this triumph was not that important I guess.

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It would have been a damn sight better than Kristen Chenoweth's rendition of Doin' What Comes Naturally. Chenoweth, a mainstay of the Kennedy Center Honors, is by no means a bad singer. She has an extraordinary voice, but I found it far too chirpy for both the song and for Annie Oakley. It is almost operatic, which works for something like Wicked, but for the down-home Annie Oakley?

I guess I'm used to people like Judy Garland, Betty Hutton or REBA!, who seem more able to play 'country' than the more polished Chenoweth.

As a side note, I see opera diva Renee Fleming also popped up here again, this time for Shorter's tribute. Is she contractually obligated to perform at the Kennedy Center Honors until she gets one herself? Maybe by the time she gets that rainbow ribbon, Fleming's film will consist of nothing but her Kennedy Center Honors performances. It will save money on buying broadcast rights anyway.

They certainly did not make the case as to why Hamilton had to receive special recognition. Sure, it is popular in certain circles, but when was the last time you heard anyone sing The Schuyler Sisters in public? People have sung and know songs like Fancy and I Got You, Babe, but despite its wild praise I cannot think of a Hamilton song that has reached the level of a Climb Every Mountain, an I Could Have Danced All Night, a Don't Rain on My Parade, an I Feel Pretty or even an All that Jazz.

Contrary to what my friend Ryan Guzman thinks, I have nothing against Hamilton: The Musical. He loves the show. I have not seen it. My argument has never been that it's a lousy show or that the songs aren't good. My argument is that it is not as popular as works by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe or Kander & Ebb. They sound like great songs that work within the show.

I just am not convinced they will enter the Great American Songbook, at least not yet.

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In terms of overall performances, I would rank them thus:

Glass, Shorter, Cher, McEntire and whatever the Hamilton crew came up with. It's interesting that the level of musical performances was inverse of the popularity of the honoree.

I imagine Philip Glass and Wayne Shorter are the least known of the honorees but their music is what I found both the best-performed and the best overall. Glass' tribute had a wonderful performance by the aforementioned Batiste and Koyaanisqatsi (even if I would have preferred selections from Kundun or the Bela Lugosi Dracula).

For me, the best performance of the night was S. Epatha Merkerson's rendition of Knee Play 5 from Einstein on the Beach with violinist Jennifer Koh. The music and the poetic recitation by Merkerson was almost like listening to a deep act of worship.

It was the only time in the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors where I was moved deeply.

I am not well-versed in jazz, but Shorter's music I find is extraordinary. It helps when you have Esperanza Spalding performing it. Her performance of Endangered Species and Elegant People showcased both Spalding's extraordinary talent and Shorter's extraordinary music. It was smooth and elegant, sophisticated yet accessible. It made me wonder, "Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding, where have you been all my life?"

Granted, the only thing I remembered about Spalding was when she got all that hate from Believers enraged she won Best New Artist over Justin Bieber (who given how the Kennedy Center Honors are is sure to be recognized in ten years). It should be remembered she also beat out Drake, Mumford & Sons and Florence & The Machine, showing at on occasion the Grammys can get it right.

Not that I dislike Mumford or Florence.

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Many have commented on how brilliant and moving Adam Lambert's version of Cher's Believe was. I would say it was very impressive, especially given he changed the song from a techno dance track to a tender, heartbreak ballad. I also learned that the lyrics aren't "Do you believe in love, that's a'love?" but "Do you believe in life after love?"

No matter how hard I try, I still keep hearing "I can feel something inside me-self" despite the lyrics actually being "I can feel something inside me say".

Lambert opted not to be glam but to be vulnerable, and it worked beautifully. Yes, his cover of Believe was effective. Curiously, Cher's tribute went from an "I don't need you" song to an "I need you" song when Cindy Lauper performed If I Could Turn Back Time, a pairing I found curious.

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Both Lambert and Lauper did great work, but what was Little Big Town about?

I remember all the grief Luke Bryan got when he covered a couple of Lionel Richie songs, criticism that I think was racially motivated (aka 'a white country singer should not sing a black artist's music'). The criticism was wildly invalid because Richie has written country songs like Stuck on You and Lady. Yet the same people who went after Bryan, the King of Bro-Country, have so far kept quiet on Little Big Town doing their versions of Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, I Found Someone and Baby Don't Go.

None of those songs, as far as I know, were meant to be country. Their versions were also not very good.

Even that I could overlook if I thought their versions were good. I'll admit I've never been a LBT fan, so that might color my view, but I was not impressed.

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At least they did better than Lady Antebellum, who slept-walked through their crappy renditions of Is There Life Out There? and The Greatest Man I Never Knew. I'll comp to never being fond of Lady A either (you tend to lose country credibility with me when I hear a techno version of Need You Now). Yet I cannot explain how Lady A could take two songs and make them so uninspired and boring...apart from the fact that it's Lady A we're talking about.

I'm pretty disappointed at how bad all around the McEntire section was. We have the sleep-inducing covers from Lady Antebellum, we have the chirpy Chenoweth doing what didn't come naturally, and McEntire's signature song, Fancy, was done by her daughter-in-law in an underwhelming manner. Kelly Clarkson is a fantastic singer, but I thought her Fancy was dominated by brass and lost that element of scandal mixed with defiance.

Personally, it is a sad sign when the best part of a REBA! tribute is Bobby Bones.

Finally, after hearing two songs from Hamilton (The Schuyler Sisters and One Last Time), I can say that yes, the score is good to great. I was not in tears or thought of them as powerful/moving though One Last Time was excellent. However, there was no case for including Hamilton or its creators as Kennedy Center Honorees.

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Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein did his damndest to, and bless his heart for trying.

"Therefore, in this 41st year of the Kennedy Center Honors, it is fitting that we not only recognize the lifetime achievements of each of our four outstanding honorees, but also recognize a trailblazing work in the groundbreaking musical Hamilton, which has made an incomparable impact on the field of arts and culture in our country. Together, these eight artists have inspired us with their storied careers of unparalleled artistry and achievement".

Lordy, Lordy is he full of it.

Why specifically was it 'fitting' to recognize 'a trailblazing work' in the 41st year? 41 years seems a rather odd number to specifically single out one musical. I've been inspired by Philip Glass and Reba McEntire. I've even sung Believe (albeit with mangled lyrics).

However, in no way has Lin-Manuel Miranda inspired me with his 'storied career of unparalleled artistry and achievement', unless said 'unparalleled artistry' is to rhyme 'shiny' with 'hiney' (as he did in a song from Moana) or adopt a bad Dick Van Dyke-like Cockney accent in Mary Poppins Returns.

Seriously, doe anyone outside Broadway know any songs from In the Heights?

Look Dave, let's cut the crap. You selected 'the creators of Hamilton' for one reason and one reason only: ratings. You heard it was wildly popular (even if most people couldn't sing/rap you My Shot or Cabinet Battle #1 or 2 if their life depended on it). You figured that with such a wildly popular show being specially saluted, you would get boffo ratings.

It didn't work.

The Kennedy Center should just decide what to do with these presentations: eschew obscure yet influential artists to get at more 'popular' fare in the hopes of getting more viewers or surrender to low ratings but keep to their original goal of honoring those who have spent a lifetime creating, even if many have not heard of them.

There's nothing wrong with including 'popular' artists, people like a Gloria Estefan or Paul McCartney. There is something wildly wrong with including people who have not had a lifetime record (vis-a-vis 'the creators of Hamilton').

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Thank Heaven Rubenstein and the Kennedy Center board didn't get the idea of honoring 'the creators of The Book of Mormon' for their 'trailblazing work'.

However, given how the Kennedy Center Honors is now, it wont be too long before perhaps Murray Perahia finds himself sitting next to Cardi B next to the empty Presidential Box.

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