Thursday, January 01, 2009

No, Not Quite the "Culture President," Dept.

Just finished watching the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors show I'd recorded last week. The honorees were Twyla Tharp, Morgan Freeman, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Barbra Streisand and George Jones. A few thoughts.

- Lily Tomlin, for some reason, introduced Twyla Tharp, who did her best Buster Keaton impression. Or was it Calvin Coolidge? At any rate, she didn't crack a smile during the entirety of her tribute and, if anything, seemed a bit annoyed to be missing a Golden Girls marathon. The "Sinatra Suite" performed to her choreography and the Chairman of the Board's music was oh-kay; the dancers seeming underrehearsed and generating all the chemistry of a rock and an ice cube in a bucket.

- Denzel Washington introduced Morgan Freeman, who got a montage and some blues performances from Delta nonagenarians Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins and from young whippersnapper B.B. King. More wow-they're-in-their-nineties than entertainment--I mean, it's cool that Honeyboy was with Robert Johnson the night he died, but either tell us those stories or bring on younger Delta blues players who can still, you know, play. All very Smithsonian-y, as these things tend to be.

- Jack Black introduced Daltrey and Townshend because...ummm...he's a famous guy who's a fan? On came Joss Stone, who really really really needn't cross the Pond to our shores because, you see, dear, we had a Janis Joplin and her name was "Janis Joplin." Consequently, to have a neo-hippie, British Janis-wannabe singing, for reasons that are probably clearer to the benighted producers of this show than to your sobsister, "My Generation" is a bit throw-uppy, yes? Daltrey and Townshend, incidentally, looked like their livers were being pecked out by large birds during her performance. Dave Grohl did an okay-if-rushed "Who Are You." Then Bettye LaVette arose, as if Venus, foam-flecked product of the music gods, and killed with a yearning, churning, burning "Love, Reign O'er Me" (start at 3:00 here). Then, poor bastard, Dave "I'm Not the Wendy's Guy" Thomas had to follow her, and that with a ho-hum "Baba O'Riley." He was only saved by the fact that a chorus of NYC firefighters and cops appeared near the end, in honor of The Who's post-9/11 tribute concert performance. But, no, really, she fucking killed. I've oversold it, but go see.

- Laura Bush, a woman who, despite eight years in the public eye, still sounds like a small-town librarian before the PTA, paid tribute to Ol' Possum, George Jones. Something about feeding the jukebox quarters to hear "The Race Is On" and how she has her own George and, excuse me, but you have the cream of the government's speechwriters from whom to choose and this is the best you could get? Her stiffness was cast in the shadows, however, by Caroline Kennedy's negative charisma. This is a woman who wants to represent New York in the SENATE?! Wow. She makes Hillary look like Tina Turner meets Sandra Bernhard at Liza Minnelli's house. Anyhoo, the country boys know how to respect their elders. Real nice work all down the line, including a great three-piece medley by Garth Brooks, all visible (in so-so quality) here. King George rules.

- Then, Queen Latifah appeared...and I know you've heard me ask this before, but what miracle worker is her agent?. Annie Sullivan has nothing on that motherfucker, because I cannot understand the continuing popularity of a woman whose only apparent talent is self-promotion. She’s like the black Oprah. Anyway, Queen blathered on for a while, praising Babs for paving the way for other, multi-talented, triple-threat superstars (herself? oh, she's far too modest to connect those dots for the audience. just.), then introduced the new generation of people influenced by La Streisand. On came Broadway star Idina Menzel—okay, makes sense—who did a decent "Don't Rain On My Parade." Looking a bit drag queenish, but in generally good voice when she didn’t push the notes. Then BeyoncĂ©—whose charms and talents I find totally resistible and could someone explain to me what her link would be to Babs?—offered another performance wherein she didn’t so much sing a song as pose for us for three minutes with the song as a pretext for occupying the stage and the spotlight. I mean, if you’re going to drag us through “The Way We Were,” B, could you try—for me—to dig just a leetel below the surface of the song and give us just a smidgey-widge of, I don’t know…interpretation? Too much to ask? Perhaps. Every time I see BeyoncĂ© perform, it’s like watching rain slide off glass. Truly, she is the anti-Bettye. Then, Ne-Yo—no, reallytruly, what possible claim to a Streisand heritage could this dude and his hat have?—did a short number backed by four chorus boys who actually pulled focus from this vacuity every time they shared a frame. We finished with Kelli O’Hara, a woman with actual B’way cred, and opera baritone Nathan Gunn, singing “Somewhere,” backed by every black choir in Choc City.

- Caroline K. then reappeared to suck vampirically the charisma from all the choristers.

- Oh! I totally forgot to mention all the times the camera cut to Prez4Life Spongedrunk Smirkpants, wherein he looked a) bored, b) contemptuous, c) clueless, d) angry or e) impatient. It must suck for him to have to attend, you know, culture events with words and thoughts and shit. Especially when attending meant he didn’t get a chance to watch the YouTube video his aides cued up for him of a pig running riot through a wedding reception. It’s a hoot!

So, yeah, Kennedy Center Honors. A fair amount of sucking redeemed by Bettye LaVette. If they ever release this show on DVD, I suggest they use that as their tagline.

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