Theatricality does not come on a scale much grander - and available to an audience much wider and larger, natch - than by way of the heady and hallucinogenic images concocted by visionary, Academy Award-winning British director Danny Boyle for the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony tonight. A hill, a heath, dozens of sheepherders and milkmaids below a large, looming tree set the scene for the start of the big, big show - and it was definitely very, very big. All of this countryside accoutrement signaled the entrance for Sir Kenneth Branagh, with sharp top hat and lit cigar, portraying noted civil engineering king Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as he physically and metaphorically ushered in the new age before our very eyes in this culturally and historically-inspired phantasmagoria - setting the proceedings into high gear with a particularly impassioned and spine-tingling reading of one of the most moving and memorable passages from all of literature in a thrilling Prospero moment from Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST. And that was just the first five minutes!
Spanning the centuries, from a pastoral scene to Shakespeare's London to the Industrial Revolution to the Gilded Age to the swingin' sixties and a campy 80s neon punk nightmare, all the way up to the present day - complete with scores of Mary Poppins flying in with LED-lit umbrellas and even a giant Voldemort - split into a number of distinct stylistic sequences, the first two hours comprised the majority of the spectacle and splendor so eagerly, breathlessly anticipated and expected of an Olympics opening in this day and age and at this point in history. Lest we forget the impossibly high standard set by Steven Spielberg and company on the Beijing Olympics not too long ago, Boyle had a steep and treacherous hill to climb here - all scenery-related puns aside - and it is hard to begrudge him for the exhilarating, genre-spanning, effectively classic, energizingly contemporary show when considered, all in all. While many directors would scoff at the mere notion of an undertaking this massive and demanding, Boyle seems to have been born to create an event such as this given the incomparable, varied successes (and les success d'estime, for that matter) he has enjoyed in his choices of film and stage projects thus far in his accomplished career. Yet, it seems just about perfect that the man behind both the trippy, controversial and button-pushing bacchanal TRAINSPOTTING as well as the highly-praised Oscar-winning romantic, crowd-pleasing heart-warmer SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE would helm an event of this magnitude when the UK got their chance to host the games of all games; he can wear many hats and wear almost all of them equally, effortlessly well (or at least seem to do so). This ceremony was no exception.
Following the assemblage of the English countryside and its inhabitants (human and otherwise) on a bare stage, the next phase of the ceremony presented an even more vivid and impressively rendered image - machines and the city of London itself, slowly springing up. Atop all the hustle and bustle of the dirty, gritty, grungy city comes the heaven-scratching smoke stacks, billowing with white air as the sirens shriek in a chill-inducing cacophony intoning the opening moments of Stephen Sondheim's paean to jolly ole London, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. While we were unfortunately not treated to any of the score of that modern musical masterpiece, Boyle generously provided a wide swath of the most recognizable themes from British films and by UK-based composers over the centuries in his soundtrack - though less Elgar and more Elton John may have been an equally effective choice, if we're being totally honest. One glaring omission seems to have been Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber; another negligence being such little attention paid to The Beatles - since "The Theme From CHARIOTS OF FIRE", "Bohemian Rhapsody" and even "Stayin' Alive" were given such full, focused attention on the musical side of the equation, one would think the country's three most successful composers (Webber, McCartney and John) would have had a bit more prominence if only for their cultural and historical importance (particularly given the nods to modern marvels like Adele, Amy Winehouse and many others instead). Who knows, perhaps the closing ceremony will give Webber and John a wink or a twinkling of the ivories - we already saw that Sir Paul McCartney was given a tune or two to sing before all was said and done, albeit two hours into the festivites - and, truth be told, this review only takes into consideration roughly the first two hours of the show as presented in the UK on BBC1 anyway, so perhaps more airtime was or will be given to them later on.
Speaking of piano players - just how hilarious was MR. Bean (Aka Rowan Atkinson) plunking out the maddeningly repetitive, if altogether classic and instantly recognizable synth theme from CHARIOTS OF FIRE? Furthermore, did no one notice the (assumed) unintentional irony of having, literally, a hundred children wheeled into the arena on hospital beds by nurses set to the strains of the "Tubular Bells" theme from THE EXORCIST? Tres bizarre - as was the largely French narration of the event (though one assumes there is a justification for such language preference given the president of the Olympics, it wreaked aural havoc in the BBC feed for one). Indeed, some sequences certainly shone far brighter and more brilliant than others - it will be many years before I will forget those five golden rings joined in mid-air, having just been forged from thin air and molten gold just moments before on the factory floor - this was without question a more consistently enjoyable and continually entertaining and engaging presentation than I ever remember witnessing in my lifetime (short as it may be). A truly terrific, truly 21st century take on the event, with the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony Danny Boyle scored a solid 10 out of 10 - solid gold.
Rousing, inspiring and thoroughly riveting, this was the ideal opener for an Olympics ceremony, a hallowed bi-yearly event now thousands of years in practice worldwide since its famed Grecian roots. Boyle masterfully juggled the many disparate elements in a visually splendorous and intellectually arresting manner - creating many just plain beautiful stage pictures while also crafting a compelling storyline of sorts (with a particularly apt and appreciable Branagh at the center) and managing to give a nod to nearly everything worth outwardly celebrating in this manner when considering the lush cultural ancestry of the United Kingdom. The Beatles to James Bond to Mr. Bean; J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan to J.K. Rowling's Voldemort to CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG's Child Catcher; squash to Shakespeare; Queen to the queen herself - this Olympics opener was the virtual, physical, actual embodiment of how to bring the world together through entertainment at its very best, if only for an hour or two.
Now, enjoy director Danny Boyle expressing his excitement - and trepidation - about the epic event and explaining his process in bringing it all together (as we can now see: so brilliantly).
As a special bonus, check out this video of the ceremony commemorating the opening of the specially-built Olympic Arena from earlier this year.
So, what was the most unforgettable moment of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony in your estimation? Was the actual Queen Of England herself joining James Bond for a nighttime skydive the coup de glace? Did Kenneth Branagh's reading of Shakespeare give you goose-bumps? Were the ever-rising smoke-stacks, terrifying sky-high puppet rendering Voldemort and neon, 3D projected house and glowing human peace sign just too gorgeous to deny? Or, like me, did the fiery, firework-filigreed formation of the five rings floating in mid-air in the final moments of the first phase of the opening render you gob-smacked and all-around awed? Yes, this opener had it all and let's hope the rest of the 2012 Summer Olympics follows suit!