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TELEVISION REVIEW

A night of mystery, pathos, and pizazz

From left: Lil Wayne, a pregnant M.I.A., and Jay Z perform last night. From left: Lil Wayne, a pregnant M.I.A., and Jay Z perform last night.
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 9, 2009
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Awards? Yeah right. Last night's Grammy telecast was fueled by a breathless string of performances, a backstage mystery, and one personal tragedy.

Rihanna and her boyfriend Chris Brown canceled their appearances at the last minute, for reasons that were not disclosed on the air. A car accident for Rihanna? Brown being investigated for felony battery? The rumors swirled on E! and online.

But the change of plan ushered an air of rock 'n' roll into the hall - never a bad thing when it comes to a night of music. Justin Timberlake and Al Green filled in for the missing Rihanna and Brown, singing "Let's Stay Together" backed by Keith Urban and Boyz II Men. The performance was loose and irresistible, with Timberlake a grinning fanboy and Green proving he can still hold the notes.

The star of the show, though, had to be Jennifer Hudson, who has emerged an icon of survival. Innocently clutching her purse, she accepted a statue with thanks to her family, including "those who are in heaven" - a reference to the murders of her mother, brother, and nephew. Later Hudson brought down the house singing about "this hole in my soul" in "You Pulled Me Through." Her last notes arrived on top of tears, but she never seemed to be milking sympathy.

U2 opened the night with a lightning version of "Get on Your Boots" in front of a screen beaming the lyrics to the world. The song? OK. Bono's eyeliner? Exquisite. While U2 delivered an arena-size wallop, Coldplay - dressed in Sgt. Pepper jackets in Teletubbies colors - took a more intimate approach. Chris Martin, who loves to bare his belly button as much as possible, twisted around the band as he cried out "Viva La Vida." This after singing "Lost" with only a piano and, at the end, Jay-Z.

Introduced by a fawning Gwyneth Paltrow, Radiohead was far more mind-blowing, playing "15 Step" backed by the USC Marching Band. Looking as much like Clay Aiken as ever, Thom Yorke did the digital rock star strut while the music shook the house. Not to fear: Neil Diamond took the rock-star vibe old school again with "Sweet Caroline." The guy doesn't sing so much as preside.

The night's other big production numbers featured Katy Perry, deposited onstage from a giant banana to deliver "I Kissed a Girl," and the arrival of what Queen Latifah announced as the Rap Pack: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T.I., and M.I.A., trading verses on "Swagga Like Us." Nine months pregnant, M.I.A. held her own, rocking her belly without seeming winded.

The Grammys love to force odd collaborations that, sometimes, work. Adele and Sugarland on "Chasing Pavements"? Why not, especially when they harmonized so sweetly at the end. Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus? Makes sense. The friends went unplugged for a duet on Swift's "Fifteen."

The Jonas Brothers singing a medley with Stevie Wonder that ended with "Superstition"? Oh no. No, no, no. Sure, the brothers looked cute as ever, grimacing with intensity. But, as they squeaked and squealed and forgot lyrics, it was hard to forget that - ouch! - Stevie couldn't be dazzled by their dimples. He could only hear them.

Also looking great but sounding not so great: Presenter Whitney Houston, beneath a tall nest of hair. She seemed to be over-articulating her words, as she paid brief tribute to Clive Davis and presented a Grammy to Hudson. But she stood tall, flirtatiously sharing a glimpse of leg with the audience.

And Houston was not yet another star presenter - like Simon Baker, Gary Sinise, and Jay Mohr - there solely to promote their CBS series. At least she's a musician.

The night went late, of course, which made replacing Rihanna and Brown seem pointless. By the last hour, performances were getting lost in the pileup - B.B. King, Keith Urban, and John Mayer paying tribute to Bo Diddley; Jamie Foxx, Smokey Robinson, and Ne-Yo singing for Levi Stubbs; Lil Wayne, Allen Toussaint, and Robin Thicke reminding us about New Orleans. At the end of the telecast, a hot night had overheated.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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