Beneath the high darkened dome of the Staples Center in Los Angeles stands Ken Ehrlich, who has directed the Grammys for the past thirty years. Potbellied, balding, in a gray sweater vest, he is part of the race of show-business elves who make things work. “You can sit there if you don’t say a fucking word,” he growls after my whispered plea. He nods toward the stage, where the bass players are finding a groove and the horn players are hitting high notes, in preparation for the next hour or so of rehearsals.
Ehrlich checks the action onstage against the minute-by-minute script contained in a fat three-ring binder that lies open on the long table in front of him. Strictly for kicks, someone has outfitted the director’s table to resemble an Italian red-sauce joint, complete with red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth, cheese platter, loaf of rustic semolina bread, wicker-clad bottle of Ruffino Chianti, and scattered tea lights atop the two ancient nineteen-inch Sony monitors, which allow the director to see the stage the way that the Grammys audience will see it from their sofas.
“OK, guys. So we’ll take it from the top,” Ehrlich says, surrounded by a mix of old guys, fat guys, and younger women, one of whom kindly rescued me from Justin Timberlake’s bleary-eyed goons when they tried to throw me out of the arena for using my iPhone to photograph the setup. JT is a stone perfectionist, and so it is odd that he is not yet onstage, more than ten minutes into his scheduled rehearsal time. In his absence, a backup dancer hits the star’s marks at three-quarter speed so that the cameraman can track the routine. All at once, the band falls silent mid-phrase, as if someone pressed pause, opening a path for a lean sweatshirted figure who looks like a software engineer or some other kind of educated geek, with a navy wool mugger’s cap, pulled down low over his close-cropped hair.
The news that Justin Timberlake has a head cold on the eve of the Grammys is as close to a scoop as I am likely to get, I am thinking, as JT’s goons give me their best wait-till-we-catch-you-after-school glare. The band starts up again with a Brazilian pop-funk groove. “Show ya how to do this, hah!” the star says, feeling out the dynamics of the vocal in the high-roofed arena. The drum pops. Pop! Pop! Pop! It’s Vegas-casino-hotel-lobby party-time music, with a wink. JT moves like a dancer onstage, slowing down to create lacunae in the vocal, then speeding up again to further emphasize his unique sense of time. The music stops, and two stand-ins read from a cue card behind my head: “A real Grammy moment to remember, featuring [some actor].”