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AARP Takes You Behind the Scenes at This Weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors Show

Our critic was in the theater for the taping of the gala’s heartwarming tributes to Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler and more cultural heroes

spinner image Lorne Michaels, Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Joni Mitchell and Justino Diaz sit and stand together as part of the 44th annual Kennedy Center Honorees
(Clockwise from top left) Lorne Michaels, Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Joni Mitchell and Justino Diaz
Scott Suchman/CBS

​​​If you’ve never seen America’s top cultural awards program, dubbed “the Grammys for grownups,” this is the year to tune in: the 44th Kennedy Center Honors held Dec. 5 in D.C. and broadcast on Dec. 22 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS (and streaming live and on demand on Paramount+) boasts one of its most luminous lineups ever: Joni Mitchell (age 78), Lorne Michaels (77), Berry Gordy (92), Bette Midler (76) and opera singer Justino Díaz (81) will be recognized for lifetime achievements that have made a lasting mark on American culture.

​​And the performances and tributes to their work by a parade of other stars is at least as impressive as the Grammys. The Kennedy Center Honors delight the ears and eyes while plucking your heartstrings like a virtuoso.

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​​Because the gala is taped in advance (and I was there for it), here are the peak moments and performances you can get excited about for when the show broadcasts this weekend.

spinner image Joni Mitchell at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Joni Mitchell: The genius of heart and mind

​​The best stuff: The audience, including President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chief Justice John Roberts, gave Mitchell a standing ovation, and she reassured us all that she’s much better after a 2015 aneurysm made her temporarily unable to speak. “I’ve had to come back several times from things,” she said, referring to her childhood polio. “And this last one [the aneurysm] was a real whopper. But, you know, I’m hobbling along but I’m doing all right!”​​

The tributes: In brilliant performances, Norah Jones played Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” and “A Case of You,” Ellie Goulding sang “Big Yellow Taxi,” Brandi Carlile sang “River,” and Brittany Howard and Herbie Hancock did a stylish version of “Both Sides Now.”

spinner image Bette Midler at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Bette Midler: The funniest great singer in America​​

The best stuff: Midler, who has earned four Grammys, three Emmys, two Oscar nominations and two Tonys, said she was prepared for the Kennedy Center award. "I’m no fool — I brought a hanky ’cause I knew it was going to get very, very emotional.” She gave a moving speech about how she “came from nothing” in remote Hawaii, got inspired by Edith Piaf, “worked like [an] animal,” and found her own creative place in the spotlight.​​

The tributes: After eloquent tributes from Goldie Hawn, Melissa Manchester and Scarlett Johansson, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein sang “Friends,” Kelli O’Hara sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and Billy Porter roused the crowd with Midler tunes concluding with “From a Distance.”​​

spinner image Berry Gordy at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors
Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

Berry Gordy: The father of Motown

​​The best stuff: Berry Gordy, the great-grandson of an enslaved Georgian, was inspired by his $86.40-a-week job on a Lincoln-Mercury assembly line to create a factory of hit tunes, which he named Motown (short for Motor Town). Biden hailed him for making “music that lifted us higher.”​​

The tributes: In addition to one from POTUS, Gordy received tributes from Smokey Robinson, Andra Day and the cast of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life And Times of the Temptations. Stevie Wonder, who confessed that as a brash kid he’d told Gordy that he sang better than Smokey Robinson, sang at least as well on “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Superstition” and “Higher Ground.” The crowd went wild. Gordy said, "I think I'm in a dream ... and it's a wonderful dream."​​​

spinner image Lorne Michaels at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors
Paul Morigi/Getty Images
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Lorne Michaels: The king of comedy

​​The tributes: Saturday Night Live’s creator was honored and razzed by Steve Martin, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Kenan Thompson and Jimmy Fallon, and three Weekend Update routines, by Kevin Nealon, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, and Colin Jost and Michael Che. But the laughs turned to teary-eyed reverie when Paul Simon sang “America” for his old pal Lorne.​​

spinner image Justino Diaz at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Justino Díaz: First opera star to sing at Kennedy Center​​

The best stuff: Justino Díaz rose from modest beginnings in Puerto Rico to become one of the greatest bass-baritones on earth, and he was the first to sing opera at the Kennedy Center’s opening 50 years ago (and also the first opera singer honored there since 2009).​​

The tributes: Chita Rivera, Denyce Graves and Grace Bumbry gave him tribute. His daughter Natascia Díaz noted that he’s survived heart bypass surgery as well as lung and colon cancer, and recalled that as a child in the wings, she’d witness his trademark bad-guy roles, “and I would cry, ‘He’s really not that bad! He’s not a bad guy!’ ” When she and her sister Katya sang “En Mi Viejo San Juan” (“My Old San Juan”) to him, his weren’t the only eyes in the Kennedy Center fighting back tears.

Catch all the heartwarming fun: The 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors will be telecast Dec. 22 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Dec. 1, 2021. It has been updated with new information about the event.

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