Tonight, the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors air on CBS, celebrating James Taylor, Al Pacino, gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples, Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, and the Eagles. Filmed earlier in December, once again hosted by Stephen Colbert, it’s another evening of wonderful performances, revealing short biographical films and moving tribute speeches, and waiting to see how often the Obamas will sing along.
Here are five reasons to watch.
1. The big finish. Producers always like to close the evening with a honoree that will get the crowd on their feet. Ringo Starr introduces the Eagles’ segment, which includes performances by Kings of Leon (“Take It Easy”), Vince Gill (“Peaceful Easy Feeling”), Juanes (“Hotel California” with Steve Vai and Steuart Smith), and Bob Seger. Seger’s “Heartache Tonight” is so good, you’ll wonder why it’s not the last number instead of the group sing-along to “Life in the Fast Lane.” But then, you’ll see Vai wrap his arms around Colbert and play a guitar solo from behind him, and also how cool President Obama manages to look standing and clapping to “Life in the Fast Lane,” and you’ll get it.
In other words, don’t change the channel before the credits roll.
2. The soul-soothing beginning. Taylor’s tribute, which starts with an introduction by Bill Clinton and includes words from Yo-Yo Ma, kicks off the evening, and you just can’t help but feel better about the world, if only for a moment, when hearing renditions of “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina in My Mind” (performed by Darius Rucker), “Fire & Rain” and “Your Smiling Face” (Sheryl Crow), “Shower the People” (Garth Brooks and the Howard Gospel Choir), and “How Sweet It Is” (all of the above). Everyone in the audience sways and sings, and it’s the definition of lovely.
3. The reminder of why art truly matters. The tribute to Staples details her contributions, alongside her family in the Staple Singers, to the civil rights movement. Bonnie Raitt and Andra Day join forces for one of the night’s most stirring performances with “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Freedom Highway.” Elle King performs “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” Don Cheadle also speaks.
Color Purple Tony winner Cynthia Erivo sings “The Impossible Dream” from the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha in a special segment honoring John F. Kennedy and his commitment to the arts, and it’s as spectacular as you imagine, if you’re imagining attendee Aretha Franklin mouthing the lyrics in her seat.
4. Producers get creative for the Pacino tribute. Feting musicians is easy; paying homage to actors in this setting is more challenging. You may be tempted to make Lily Rabe and Laurence Fishburne’s Shakespeare interlude (in honor of Pacino’s love of the Bard and the stage) a bathroom break, but don’t: Chris O’Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar dance the Scent of a Woman tango and Kevin Spacey schools the audience on how to do a perfect Pacino impression in three steps (always seem to be looking for something that has gone missing, always look a little surprised, and always do the huff).
Bobby Cannavale and Sean Penn also speak for Pacino.
5. The education. There’s always that one honoree who many at home may not know. This year, it’s multiple Grammy Award-winning pianist Argerich. Jeff Goldblum and Placido Domingo speak eloquently about her passionate, expressive style, but it’s violinist Itzhak Perlman who pays her the greatest compliment, saying, “I’m actually feeling lucky to be living during your lifetime so that we can experience your musicianship, your brilliance, and your poetry.” Perlman performs Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 8 in G with pianist Yefim Bronfman. Pianist Yuja Wang performs Piazzola Grand Tango, and the overhead shots of her fingers flying will make you want to rewind.
The 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors airs Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. on CBS.