Review: A marathon Grammy Awards telecast packed with joy, passion and some major surprises

Are the Grammys over yet?

You could make a case that the 65th annual Grammy Awards telecast on CBS was a reboot of “The NeverEnding Story.” It went on. And on. And on. And then on some more. It kept going for 3 hours and 53 minutes and not a single acceptance speech was interrupted by an orchestra to play them off. Then even when it was seemingly over, there was still one more performance left, outside Arena in Downtown Los Angeles and fronted by a giant table of fruit.

But this isn’t a pan of the show. Far from it. It felt like a defiant celebration of all that is musical, a multi-ethnic, multi-generational party that put the performers and winners front and center. And while yes, it could have stood to be a good half-hour shorter, not at the expense of changing the Grammys to the sort of button-down exercise it simply never is. It came across as refreshingly heartfelt and freewheeling rather then overzealous and self-important.

Moreover, host Trevor Noah made up for some sins of directionless yammering earlier with his brilliant, seemingly spur-of-the-moment move at the end: having Album of the Year winner Harry Styles name read out of the envelope by a 78-year-old great grandmother who had earlier expressed her undying love and devotion for Styles and his album “Harry’s House.” Her look of sheer astonishing delight at being chosen for such a special task was simply priceless. It placed the focus back squarely where it belongs: on the fans.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

One of the things that was great about the Grammy telecast was its very informality. Attendees got up from tables and wandered around behind Noah, not disrespectfully but as a way to bond. And the musical performances were nearly all spirited and lively. I’m thinking in particular about Brandi Carlile’s performance of her hit “Broken Horses,” Mary J. Blige doing “Good Morning Gorgeous” and Styles singing “As It Was” in a jumpsuit that looked like it was made out of Christmas tinsel. Oh, and the decision to have Latino superstar Bad Bunny open the show singing in Spanish was a stroke of genius, demonstrating the diversity that’s a hallmark of the Grammys in particular and the music industry in general.

Indeed, there will never be any need for a #GrammysSoWhite campaign. The artists, presenters, nominees and winners were a tribute to racial and ethnic inclusion, demonstrating to the other awards shows that this is how it’s done. You don’t indulge in tokenism because it’s what you are. Never was that more evident than during the tribute to the 50th anniversary of hip-hop that proved  uncannily eye-opening and even moving, showing that it’s hardly just the domain of young males. It went on for a good 10 minutes, and deserved to, showcasing a rich half-century of entertainment.

Another special moment happened when Billy Crystal, of all people, came out to introduce Motown founder Berry Gordy and legend Smokey Robinson in an exhilarating Motown tribute that had Stevie Wonder singing the Temptations classic “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and dueting with Chris Stapleton on his own “Higher Ground,” with Smokey himself then crooning the Miracles hit “Tears of a Clown.” It was breathtakingly cool.

While I poked fun at the lack of play-off music for the winners during their acceptance speeches, the truth is that they didn’t need it. No one was unusually long-winded, and Lizzo in particular (especially when she paid tribute to Beyonce). proved to be a show highlight. She is the gift that keeps on giving, not only to music but to the world of entertainment. Her impassioned campaign of body acceptance was on full, glorious display Sunday night onstage (including during a performance that was more religious revival than mini-concert).

You could also tell how blown away Lizzo was to have won for Record of the Year for “About Damn Time,” though in truth she wasn’t nearly as shocked as was Bonnie Raitt to have won for Song of the Year. I thought they were going to have to give the woman smelling salts. I have never witnessed an awards show winner more genuinely surprised – and, in her speech, subsequently humbled – than was the slack-jawed Raitt.

It was wonderful to have the deserving Viola Davis receive a standing ovation after taking the stage for the first time since winning a Grammy earlier in the day and becoming the 18th EGOT (winner of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) in history. And Beyonce’s elated, genuinely emotional response to earning the trophy that made her the most awarded artist in Grammy history was lovely to behold, making up somewhat for her being late to the ceremony and unable to accept an award earlier in the show. Noah indicated she was stuck in traffic, leaving it to “Cuff It” co-writer and musical legend Nile Rodgers to graciously accept it on her behalf.

While it was heartening to see the mega-talented Noah resurface for his third assignment hosting the Grammys after departing his “Daily Show” perch in December, he seemed oddly anxious for much of Sunday night, suffering from nervous chatter that was often overly effusive and only intermittently amusing. It was out of character for a guy who generally commands the spotlight with relaxed confidence.

But there were a lot of things the Grammys did right on Sunday night, even if time management wasn’t among them. One was the classy idea of having First Lady Dr. Jill Biden present the new Best Song for Social Change honor. Another happened earlier when Billy Crystal, of all people, came out to introduce Motown founder Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson in an exuberant Motown tribute that had Stevie Wonder singing the Temptations classic “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and dueting with Chris Stapleton on his own “Higher Ground,” with Smokey himself crooning the Miracles hit “The Tears of a Clown.”

The In Memoriam segment was also incredibly spare and moving, beginning with Kacey Musgraves’ beautiful “Coal Miner’s Daughter” rendition to honor Loretta Lynn and concluding with Sheryl Crow, Raitt, and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac performing “Songbird” to reach out their arms spiritually to the late Christine McVie and others.

Finally, there was that decision to keep returning to a group of fans discussing the nominees they favored in the biggest categories, coloring the show with a fun, just-plain-folks element. They may have gone back to it one time too many, and they certainly could have been shorter, but the inspired idea to have them join Noah onstage at the end and ultimately have one of them read out the top album victor was an exceptional piece of theater – arguably one of the greatest awards show moments in recent memory.

If they could only figure out a way to wrap it up in three hours or so instead of nearly four, the Grammys might really be onto something.

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