Sunday’s Grammy Awards telecast is set to open with a performance by Harry Styles, who is nominated for three awards on music’s biggest night.
“You don’t want to miss the top of the show,” Jack Sussman, CBS’ executive VP of specials, music and live events, tells Variety. “It’s going to be music coming at you heavy and hard like you’ve not seen it before. We’ve got Harry Styles, this incredible entertainer, at the top of the show and we’ll just keep coming at you.”
The hope is that the burst of a rousing kick-off to the three and a half hour ceremony will soothe an audience that has been starved for live shows for a year and be a moment of renewal for the artists themselves.
Styles is a contender for best pop solo performance for “Watermelon Sugar,” best pop vocal album for “Fine Line” and best music video for “Adore You.” On the heels of several hit singles, his latest album has sold 2.5 million units since its release in December 2019, according to Alpha Data, moving more than 20,000 just last week, a gain of 11%.
For his maiden voyage as Grammycast executive producer, Ben Winston has been working with artists for months to develop a show that is extremely ambitious in scope and production needs. The cameras will move around from live performances spaces created inside the Los Angeles Convention Center to an outdoor open-air tent in the plaza of L.A. Live. Some performances will also be taped.
Says Sussman, a 20-year veteran of the Grammy Awards from the TV broadcast side: “We wanted to do it right for the artists. It’s been a tough year. This is a moment in time for these artists to get out on stage and connect with fans who have been starving for these kinds of moments. We have a wonderful group of diverse musical talent — some of the best live performers on the planet.”
Sussman is bracing for seismic activity in downtown L.A. when K-pop sensations BTS take the stage. He wouldn’t give any hints about plans for their performance other than to say that fans won’t be disappointed.
“It will be what you really love and want to see BTS do,” Sussman hints. “They’re going to have fun and engage the audience at home. They’ll get you up on your feet in your living room.”
Naturally, the pandemic conditions of the past 12 months had a big impact on planning for every aspect of this year’s show. Sussman, who has steered Grammy moments for two decades, adds that he’d never seen less stress in getting talent on board for the show.
“It’s been easier to deal with artists because they know the boat that we’re in,” he says. “Everybody’s trying to row in the same direction.”
A new element to the presentation this year is a series of short films shot by filmmaker Gibson Hazard for each of the record of the year nominees. The films are designed to tell the stories behind the songs and the backstory of artists who might not be as familiar to viewers. Sussman cites the Black Pumas, nominated for “Colors,” as an act that just a few years ago was busking with that tune on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.
Doja Cat, nominated for “Say So,” is another example of an “unbelievably talented” newcomer, Sussman offers. The films aim to “provide some context around these nominees so you have some sense of who they are before they walk on stage.”
Winston and his team had the misfortune of taking over an enormous production (after two years of apprenticeship under longtime Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich) in extraordinary pandemic circumstances that required much of the show to be reinvented. But in hindsight, the timing of the handover from Ehrlich to Winston was opportune.
Winston “is coming in with a new way of looking at everything,” says Sussman. “He doesn’t have experiential blinders on because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’”
First-time Grammy host Trevor Noah, moonlighting from Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” also brings a freshness to the telecast. “He’s amped up, he can’t wait to get out there,” Sussman says. “He’s the perfect host for the Grammys in 2021.”
As always, Sussman is consumed in the days before the big night about all the things that have to go right in order for the team to pull off 210 minutes of live musical spectacles.
“For the viewer at home, this isn’t going to be a remote Zoom telecast,” he emphasizes. “You’re going to be as entertained as if you were watching it at the Staples with 14,000 other fans.”
The Grammy Awards air live on CBS from the Los Angeles Convention Center at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on Sunday, March 14.
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