Kennedy Center Honors Celebrate George Clooney, Gladys Knight, Amy Grant, Tania Leon and U2 With Help From Sacha Baron Cohen

A lively and music-filled edition of the Kennedy Center Honors was In Washington D.C. Sunday on behalf of the latest group of worthy honorees: actor/filmmaker George Clooney, soul legend Gladys Knight, Christian music singer/songwriter Amy Grant, composer/conductor Tania Leon, and Irish rockers U2.

U2’s set was “interrupted” midstream by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who stepped out in full Borat mode, a first for the unbridled entertainer at the Honors event. He gazed around the packed house before delivering a hilarious riff of off-color topics such as the persecution of Jews in his “native” Kazakhstan (while targeting Kanye West) to Donald Trump, whom he sought to locate in the presidential box. (Trump famously shunned the Honors event throughout his term.) It brought down the house.

Seated in the presidential box of the Center’s Opera House alongside President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, as well as Vice President Kamila Harris and husband Doug Emhoff, the honorees were treated to a time-honored blend of entertainment and heartfelt testimonials from assorted pals.

Pity the folks at CBS who will have to trim precious elements of the polished three-hour event for its scheduled airing Dec. 28.

Others seated in the VIP tier included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and husband Paul, who was making his first public appearance following the assault in his California home. The pair received a lengthy standing ovation from the audience filled with D.C. insiders and politicos.

Among the principal themes of the evening, were the many philanthropic/good will activities generated from within this year’s crop of honorees — especially Clooney and U2 band members Bono and Dave “the Edge” Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. Their deeds were emphasized during the affair by A-listers that included Julia Roberts for Clooney and Sean Penn for U2.

The 45-year-old event was produced for the first time by Dun+Dusted, in association with ROK Prods., following expiration of the center’s contract with White Cherry Entertainment. (The Honors event was conceived by, and produced for years, by George Stevens Jr.) D+D also produces the center’s Mark Twain Prize, which is now held each Spring.

It was an astutely-paced production that incorporated limited but effective use of video elements reprising each honoree’s life and career, live entertainment and emcee duties from past honorees such as Garth Brooks and LL Cool J. There was no official host for the evening.

Per the event’s longstanding tradition, the lineup of participants – typically showbiz chums of honorees and other associates – remained a carefully guarded secret to surprise both audience and honorees alike. Case in point: The evening’s closing tribute to U2, which showcased polished performances of the group’s faves “Elevation” and “One” by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. U2’s rousing “Walk On” helped close the evening with a flourish.

The show opened with the tribute to Knight that began with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” performed by Brooks with backup from the Pips themselves – Knight’s brother Merald “Bubba” Knight Jr., and cousins William Guest and Edward Patton. Mickey Guyton and Ariana DeBose followed with “Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” respectively.

Patti LaBelle reviewed six decades of friendship with the honoree, and joined the other performers singing “That’s What Friends Are For.” Previous honoree Michael Tilson Thomas said of Knight, “She has the staying power and a voice that brought us timeless joy.”

The segment for Clooney was led by Julia Roberts, who called him a “Renaissance man.” Then the curtain rose to reveal a cozy bar and nightclub scene, where Clooney’s father, Nick, was seated at a table. He reminisced about memorable times with a young George, who “never stopped surprising me – just look at who he married!” The tribute was clearly enjoyed by Clooney and wife Amal in their box.

Others seated on set were actors Richard Kind, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle, each offering praise for their colleague. The set also included a sultry version of “How High the Moon” sung by Diane Reeves.

The segment for recipient Grant was introduced by TV news anchor Katie Couric, who highlighted the artist’s multifaceted talents. Former honoree Chita Rivera also welcomed Grant to the “club” as its first contemporary Christian music member, whose faith-based career has generated some 30 million album sales. Songs including “Sing Praises to the Lord” were performed by Sheryl Crowe, BeBe and CeCe Winans, and the Highwomen – Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. It was backed by the Howard University Gospel Choir.

Honoree Leon received a loving tribute from Anna Deavere Smith, who reprised her life as a refugee from Cuba where talent and good fortune – including a boost from Leonard Bernstein – aided her success. The set included the Dance Theater of Harlem, of which Leon is a co-founder, performing one of her compositions. Highlights included a touching performance of Leon’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Stride” by singer Alicia Hall Moran, accompanied by the Kennedy Center Honors Orchestra.

The wrap-up segment for U2, the fifth musical group to receive a Kencen Honor, featured a moving film about social justice and human rights and ended with a laser light show. In between, along with Borat, was actor Penn’s testimonial about the legendary (and still performing) band formed during the violence of the 1970s that still champions worthy causes with largesse and benefit concerts in their fight against poverty and other causes.

The show concluded resoundingly with the song “Walk On,” joined by multiple performers from the evening.

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