Just when it seems, in this year of Paris Hilton and Average Joe, as if television and American popular culture might have reached a point of hopeless decline, along comes The 26th Annual Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts to say it ain't so - again and again and again and again and again for each of its five acclaimed honorees.
This year's program honors country singer Loretta Lynn, rhythm and blues performer James Brown, director Mike Nichols, comedian Carol Burnett and violinist Itzhak Perlman. Good luck, one might think, in trying to make a two-hour program with any sense of coherence out of that diverse lot.
But that is exactly what producer George Stevens Jr. and director Louis J. Horvitz manage to do with brilliantly crafted brief biographical films that illustrate how each performer or artist connects in his or her life and work to larger currents of American life. For all its black-tie and glittery-gowns singing and dancing, Kennedy Center Honors is as much about cultural history as it is laughter, dance and song. But, wow, wow, wow, wow and wow for the performers.
Lynn, an artist often parodied for such gimmicky early songs as "Fist City," finds at the Kennedy Center the intelligent and elevated treatment her body of work deserves. Sissy Spacek, who played Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter (the film based on Lynn's autobiography), delivers opening remarks and serves as narrator for the film of Lynn's life, which quickly locates the country singer as a "voice of Appalachia." Once you see her in that light, the songs make so much more sense.
And, then, when the film of Lynn's life ends, on come the performers: Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. It's a talented enough lineup to carry a two-hour special on its own. But it is only part of the package here. Loveless is the crowning glory, singing "Coal Miner's Daughter," Lynn's biggest hit, at first as a kind of dirge, and then finding in a rising tempo the pride and joy of a hard journey successfully traveled - the narrative of Lynn's life. It is impossible to see and hear Loveless singing "Coal Miner's Daughter" on the stage of that magnificent American hall and not feel the dignity of country music.
The moments of greatest wit and insight belong to writer-director Elaine May, who salutes Nichols, her former comedy partner, after another gem of a biography that traces Nichols' interest in outsiders, marginalization and protest from The Graduate (1967) to Angels in America (2003). As an 8-year-old who immigrated with family members to America in 1938 from Nazi Germany, Nichols' formative years were spent looking at his new homeland from the margins.
"Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful and have real impact and real relevance," May says. "But he makes them so entertaining and so exciting that they are as much fun as if they were trash. They're so much fun that you don't realize that your vision of the world is being changed incrementally as you watch."
One of the evening's most powerful musical moments comes during the salute to Brown, whose music is placed within the great social upheaval of the 1960s. Gospel singer Yolanda Adams and a huge chorus stop the show with Georgia On My Mind, a song Brown considers his own. At the end of Adams' rendition, Brown is clapping harder than anyone in the hall.
Equally moving are the words and music of a group of children from a music summer camp run by Perlman.
"Mr. Perlman, you're magical," a teen member of the group says through tears after thanking him for a summer of instruction and emotional support. She then takes up her violin to join the other Perlman campers in a lovely rendition of "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
The show closes with Julie Andrews leading the tribute to Burnett, star of The Carol Burnett Show for 11 seasons on CBS. Andrews and Burnett - what more does anyone need to know?
There is consensus that the television variety show is dead, never to return again. Technically, Kennedy Center Honors is an awards show. And it doesn't air every week as Burnett's show did. But once a year, with all that talent up on stage celebrating the best of our popular culture, Kennedy Center Honors feels like the best and brightest television variety show that ever was.
What: The 26th Annual Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts
When: Tonight at 9
Where: WJZ (Channel 13)
In brief: Popular culture redeemed onstage at the Kennedy Center.