We’re not known for our love of sporting events here at The Playlist, but ever since it was announced that Danny Boyle would be the man in charge of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics (following in the footsteps of “Hero” director Zhang Yimou, who shepherded the Beijing events), we’ve been intrigued. After all, Boyle, as a recent Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” is a serious A-lister now, and could get any film he wanted made. And while he’s kept his oar in, shooting thriller “Trance,” with James McAvoy, last year (he’ll finish post-production on it once the Olympics are done), it did mean giving over a year or so of his life to the event at a time when he’s never had more cachet.
And Boyle had a particularly tough act to follow, given that the Beijing opening ceremony in 2008 was generally deemed to be the most spectacular ever, with 15,000 participants, and a budget of over $100 million. Could Boyle even hope to compete, with a quarter of the budget and a tenth of the volunteers, and make not only a home country that’s not easily impressed happy, but also entertain a billion viewers around the world as well?
Yes, as it turns out. The director knocked it out of the park with a gloriously indiosyncratic spectacular that didn’t try to beat Beijing at the same game, but instead emphasized a very British group of values that also felt like something from Boyle through and through.
We have to confess that we were going in expecting disaster. Boyle had unveiled his set a few weeks back, a pastoral mound that, as Jon Stewart described, looked like the Teletubbies inhabited it. And the warm up, featuring real livestock (12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep and three sheepdog), a ferris wheel and a period-dressed villagers, didn’t inspire a huge amount of confidence; it looked, to be frank, like Hobbiton.
But if you were listening carefully to musician Frank Turner, who played his song “I Still Believe,” you might have picked up a couple of hints of what Boyle was really intending. Two lines stand out. First, “come ye, come ye, to soulless corporate circus tops,” the first suggestion of a subversive quality that would run throughout. And then the song’s chorus, “Who’d have though that after all, something as simple as rock & roll would save us all.”
We didn’t have to wait long for the rock’n’roll; a video tour of Britain contained snippets of “London Calling” and the Sex Pistols‘ “God Save The Queen,” boldly, and plenty more was to come. After Tour-De-France cyclist Bradley Wiggins rang the bell, Kenneth Branagh (a last minute replacement for stage star Mark Rylance, who pulled out after a family tragedy), as pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, complete with top hat and a non-PC cigar, emerged to read Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” beginning “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises.”
And suddenly, the huge tree atop the mount lifted up, and that pastoral landscape, which Boyle had cheekily suggested would be the setting for the whole show, was ripped up, as the industrial revolution got underway. Huge chimneys were erected and an enormous forge was revealed, just as suffragettes took to the field too, all to a thumping score by Boyle’s “Trainspotting” colleagues Underworld. After a moment’s pause for the dead of the two World Wars, symbolized by a single poppy, the drummers started up again, and a group in Sgt. Pepper jackets took to the field, along with a boat symbolizing the first West Indian immigrants to British shores, Chelsea pensioners and Cockney pearly kings and queens.
On the surface, it again felt Tolkien-inspired (the scouring of the Shire and all), but if anything, there was less ambivalence than you might expect; this was the glory of progress that came with technology, rather than a lamenting for an England that never was. Looking forward, rather than back, as it were — if anything else, the biggest theme of the show. At the same time, there was something a little sinister about the whole thing, not least the marked, scarred appearance of the ground.
As one giant golden ring was forged and elevated, four others were flown in from across the stadium, and formed the Olympic symbol, which then poured sparks and fire over those watching. As one saw the close-up of the fire reflected in the goggles of a masked forger, one can only imagine that Boyle had a hand in the direction of the broadcast as well as its content; it was a highly filmic shot, and the cinematic quality carried across the show as a whole.
As the smoke settled, we then got a pre-recorded film starring James Bond and Queen Elizabeth II, of all people. We’ve already discussed that (and you can watch it here), but it also signified something that set Boyle’s ceremony apart; for the first time ever, the opening of the Olympics was funny. Not high comedy, exactly, but between this, and the surprise appearance of Rowan Atkinson, with a Mr. Bean-ish routine during a performance of Vangelis‘ “Chariots Of Fire” theme tune, it was refreshing, and entirely in keeping with the British sense of humor; a little self-deprecating, a little silly.
Then came the single weirdest section, but the one that made our heart soar the most. In front of a billion people, Boyle devoted ten minutes to honoring Britain’s National Health Service, with a dance routine performed by children, and real-life doctors and nurses, in front of a government that’s trying to dismantle free healthcare in the country (Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was said to be fervently opposed to the sequence). It was a glorious moment, one that no one but Boyle could have snuck it in, and it got even stranger when J.K. Rowling appeared to read a section from “Peter Pan,” and it shifted to be about the power of children’s literature, with appearances from Voldemort and Cruella DeVil (and seemingly, the creatures from “Attack the Block” too), describing both the illicit thrill of being scared by their characters, and the comforting power when their heroes win out, evoked by an army of Mary Poppinses floating down in umbrellas.
After Mr. Bean’s section, Boyle essentially staged a rom-com with a cast of thousands in the middle of a stadium, paying tribute to British film, music, comedy and the ordinary family, while following the flirtations of a guy and a girl across a nightclub with music that spanned The Beatles to rapper Dizzee Rascal, who appeared live for his track “Bonkers;” a song with the chorus ‘Some people think I’m bonkers,’ which much of the worldwide audience must have been applying to Boyle, and Britain in general, by this point (we watched the ceremony in Bow, East London, about a 5 minute walk from the stadium, and when Rascal, a native of the area, appeared, cheers echoed from every house in the street).
We were totally onboard with the musical (The Specials! Bowie! New Order!) and film choices (“Kes!” “Gregory’s Girl!” “A Matter Of Life And Death,” arguably the best British film ever made!), and there continued to be some wonderfully subversive moments, like the performers signifying the coming of the rave era by forming into the shape of a giant Ecstasy tablet-smiley face (again, in front of a billion people), or a young boy in a dress, accompanied by a clip of the cross-dressing best friend from “Billy Elliot.” But we have to say that the rom-com sequence, with its “Sherlock”-style on-screen texts, felt a little condescending, and was perhaps Boyle’s major misstep of the night.
That said, it did pay off beautifully in a couple of ways. Firstly, the section concluded by revealing Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man essentially responsible for inventing the Internet. But Boyle didn’t emphasize patriotic pride at that moment, but instead the way that Berners-Lee didn’t make billions off his creation, but gave it to the world, broadcasting his message ‘This Is For Everyone.” And in a world where everything from romance (the kiss of Boyle’s couple being accompanied by clips from among others, “Wall-E,” “Planet Of The Apes” and the first on-screen lesbian kiss on British TV) to national revolution has been changed by the internet, it’s a fine message to let the audience dwell on (and again, it allowed Boyle to let his socialist, humanist agenda sing out).
It was also another moment in which Boyle spelled out that the ceremony was not about looking to the past, but looking to the future — focusing on young people, the music they’ve listened to across the last half decade, and the way they live their lives today, and will continue too. And later in the ceremony (after a moving, quiet tribute to the victims of the 7/7 bombings, which took place the day after it was announced that London would host the Olympics, the athlete’s parade, and a storming performance by Arctic Monkeys, again showing Boyle’s top-notch musical taste), Boyle brought his message home.
Speculation had been rife throughout the ceremony about who would be responsible for lighting the Olympic cauldron. Roger Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile, in 1954? Steve Redgrave, the rower who stands as the only man to have won five gold medals at consecutive Olympic games? But again, Boyle was looking forward. Redgrave took the flame into the Stadium, after David Beckham drove it in on a speedboat (!), but rather than lighting the major torch himself, passed it on to seven other great British olympians, who, with Redgrave, in turn passed the flame on to eight promising young British athletes. They then lit individual torches brought on by every competing nation, which then came together (to paraphrase the Beatles song covered by the Arctic Monkeys not long before) to form one giant torch. Both in its hope for the future, and its summing-up of the Olympic spirit, it was the perfect metaphor, and a genuinely moving moment.
Danny Boyle (and all those who helped him) managed to do the impossible. He banished thoughts of cynicism and gave Britain something to be proud of, putting their sports, their music, their film, their literature, and even their healthcare system, front and center. But he also created a vision both personal and deeply weird, yet also universal. And it was enormously entertaining too. We hope there are many great films to come from the director, but this may stand as his finest achievement. [A]