London 2012 Opening Ceremony

6:00 AM PST 07/31/2012 by David Rooney

The ballsy choice of Danny Boyle to oversee the Summer Olympics opening ceremony yielded an eccentric nation-themed spectacle.

Details of the $42 million opening ceremony of the 30th Summer Olympics had been cloaked in secrecy, but it was a no-brainer that Danny Boyle -- the genre-hopping director who was a key figure in the Cool Britannia wave of 1990s cultural reinvigoration with his first films Shallow Grave and Trainspotting -- never was going to settle for standard-issue pomp and pageantry. If Zhang Yimou's dazzling Beijing opening in 2008 was about automaton-like synchronicity and majestic spectacle, Boyle's epic opera of social and cultural history was a vibrant work of unfettered imagination that celebrated a nation, but even more so, its people.

The three-hour ceremony was the brainchild of Boyle, with the creative consultancy of Stephen Daldry, two Brit directors who successfully have straddled film and theater. That twin embrace of fluid cinematic visuals with magical stagecraft was evident above all in the sensational first hour. If the meaning behind some of the imagery was occasionally baffling and the focal points too numerous to absorb in a single television sitting, the overall impact was that of a mesmerizing ADHD banquet.

The key note of any Olympics opener is a celebratory one, but Boyle injected irreverence, unexpected humor and even darkness. From the fake clouds suspended over the arena, acknowledging the U.K.'s infamy as lousy-weather capital of the planet, to the mischievous inclusion of the Sex Pistols' doing "God Save the Queen" in the filmed intro, whimsy played more of a part in the proceedings than solemn sense of occasion.

The biggest surprise was an acting cameo from Queen Elizabeth II. A real sport, she greeted a tuxedo-clad Daniel Craig as he marched up the corridors of Buckingham Palace trailed by the monarch's pet corgis: "Good evening, Mr. Bond." A sly switch with a body double followed as they boarded a chopper, with "H.M." dropped into the stadium on a Union Jack parachute to the 007 theme music. Genius.

But the most striking work was the brilliantly conceptualized live opening, broken into three parts: "The Green and Pleasant Land," "Pandemonium" and "Frankie and June Say Thanks to Tim."

A boy soprano singing William Blake's verses to "Jerusalem" set a serene tone, and this nod to paradise found in England was one of Boyle's boldest strokes, illustrating that Brit patriotism has an infinitely greater variety of shadings than the rah-rah American equivalent.

Thematic cohesion wasn't always a strong point, but with so much to amuse the eye, who's complaining? After odes to pastoral life and the industrial revolution, an extended tribute followed to the U.K.'s National Health Service, and the nation's contributions to children focused on Mary Poppins and Harry Potter. Next came the iconic Vangelis theme from Chariots of Fire led by Rowan Atkinson in Mr. Bean guise, hammering away at a single synthesizer note while acknowledging the vital role of British humor in the popular culture -- fart joke included.

The final part of this opening trilogy no doubt will be the most discussed, and while enjoyably messy, it was the least suited to stadium/TV presentation. While the teen romance/social media storytelling wasn't as lucid here as elsewhere, the music was a blast.

The much-ballyhooed Paul McCartney closing slot was a rousing singalong to "Hey Jude," which added sentimental value but was otherwise fairly standard Super Bowl halftime stuff.

In his wild, wacky and often hilarious Games kickoff, Boyle kept his promise, delivering something unique that acknowledged the nation's people and its innovative creative spirit more than its leaders or its past as a grand empire. The director's stock got a major boost when he won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, but this audacious show should bump it even higher.

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