The show might have wrapped with The Who performing “My Generation,” but the celebration of British popular music that capped off the London Olympics had something for every generation of the past half-century or more. Sure to be regarded as a wonderfully chaotic treasure trove by some and a hot mess by others with a taste for more regimented spectacle, it was an exuberant afterparty to 16 days of international athletic competition. Most of all, it echoed the fun, freewheeling spirit and quirky humor established by director Danny Boyle in his divisive Opening Ceremony.
The artistic director of the three-hour closing show was former ballet dancer Kim Gavin, who larded the event with dance-troupe interludes — some more inventive and seamlessly interwoven than others. (Does anyone still need to see the Stomp ensemble punishing trash-can lids at this point?) But the driving force in a show titled A Symphony of British Music naturally was the music itself. And while purists no doubt will cry sacrilege about a game Russell Brand covering The Beatles, this all-star mix of live and prerecorded music was a major crowd-pleaser.
The show opened on a gorgeous set, with replicas of London’s famous monuments dotting the Olympic Stadium arena across artist Damien Hirst’s stylized representation of the Union Jack — all of it wrapped in newspaper covered with quotes from Britain’s great works of literature. A Day in the Life of London then unfolded, from morning rush hour through nightfall. A choral performance of The Beatles’ “Because” segued into Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour” led by cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, which gave way to actor Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, busting through the top of Big Ben to recite the same passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest that was the defining motif of Boyle’s opener.
Many typically playful touches registered as just the briefest of throwaways, notably the performers wielding jackhammers to kick off the British national anthem. (Prince Harry and Kate Middleton were an appropriately youthful choice for royal duty at the ceremony.)
Many non-Brits might have been scratching their heads over a mixed-reference nod to the classic 1969 caper comedy The Italian Job and to nationally beloved sitcom Only Fools and Horses, in which a low-rent Batman & Robin tumbled out of a yellow Robin Reliant (one of an endless series of iconic Brit autos featured in the show). This occurred as Madness got the party started with “Our House.” Then came The Massed Bands of the Household Division in their tall bearskin hats performing Blur’s “Parklife.” Pet Shop Boys followed singing “West End Girls,” looking like wacky wizards on sculptural orange rickshaws. As a concession to the younger demographic, boy-band sensation One Direction performed “What Makes You Beautiful” while The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” led into The Kinks frontman Ray Davies doing “Waterloo Sunset.” As a tribute to the Olympics host city, this section was a joy.
With gymnastics-dance troupe Spellbound and other performers bouncing all over the arena like a Cirque du Soleil training camp, plus color-coded partiers bopping along, there was invariably too much on which to focus. But overkill at these types of ceremonies is not necessarily a bad thing.
One of the loveliest touches early on was the emotionally charged film accompanying Emeli Sande’s performance of her hit “Read All About It,” which celebrated not the triumphant medalists of the Games but the stinging disappointments of many celebrated athletes who had come to London chasing gold and had been unlucky. This was an unexpected stroke but perfectly in keeping with the Olympics’ participatory spirit.
Continuing the tradition of recent Games, the athletes entered the arena not in strict national groups but en masse in random clusters, herded into formation in the Union Jack segments to function as a mosh pit throughout the show. This was above all their night, and watching them sing, dance and cheer along was a large part of the pleasure.
Some of the bigger names in British music were absentees, represented in tributes. A pyramid formed out of white boxes representing the 303 Olympic events, underscored by Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” was a bit of a miss. Likewise a cheesy salute to British style, with David Bowie’s “Fashion” accompanied by trucks bearing giant glamour billboards that were ripped open to disgorge supermodels including Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.
A couple of departed greats were given more winning representation. Particularly stirring use was made of a film of John Lennon singing “Imagine” direct to camera, backed by a children’s choir. And seeing Freddie Mercury work the crowd at Wembley Stadium in a 1986 clip was a terrific intro to the surviving members of Queen. It did, however, cast an unflattering light on the posturing self-seriousness of Muse frontman Mathew Bellamy, who preceded with the band’s Olympics anthem “Survival.”
Younger crowd bait Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and Taio Cruz were fine doing their solo hits but not so much when they grouped together to cover The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing.” However, Jessie J was a sexy stand-in for Mercury on “We Will Rock You.” George Michael aced a galvanizing performance of “Freedom ’90” but stuck around too long on a less-memorable second number, “White Light,” a recent single unlikely to go down among the pop star’s classics. Kaiser Chiefs capably covered The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” while Liam Gallagher and his post-Oasis band Beady Eye sang the evergreen “Wonderwall.”
Ed Sheeran was an accomplished vocalist on “Wish You Were Here,” a Pink Floyd homage that included original members from that band and Genesis, culminating with an aerial tightrope re-creation of the iconic man-on-fire album cover.
Anyone required to follow that most supremely theatrical British pop iconoclast Annie Lennox has a tough assignment. The task was made more difficult here by her spectacular vamping aboard a ghost galleon to “Little Bird,” while neo-romantic Goths minuetted alongside the vessel.
At the opposite end of the spectrum but arguably no less sublime was the Spice Girls reunion, an irresistible rush of pop-culture kitsch in which the ladies whipped through “Wannabe” and “Spice Up Your Life,” the latter while being propelled around the arena on the roofs of multicolored London cabs. Victoria Beckham’s stiffness hinted that she’s not unhappy to have left those frivolous days behind her, but seeing the trashtastic quintet reassembled in all their girl-power glory was a blast.
The most whimsical combo was Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” segueing into Eric Idle doing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Piling on the Python-esque absurdism, Idle mingled with roller-skating nuns, Roman centurions, Bhangra dancers, Morris Men, the London Welsh Rugby Club and opera star Susan Bullock as a warbling Valkyrie. And Fatboy Slim manned the turntable for a pulse-pounding medley of his hits from atop a giant octopus that contained 700 meters of LED lights. That was some inflatable pool toy.
Lighting effects were possibly even more brilliant than the Opening Ceremony, with the pixel show created by computer chip-operated glasses on the spectators yielding some truly dazzling displays across the stadium.
In his concluding remarks, London Olympics committee chief Sebastian Coe said: “At our Opening Ceremony, we said these would be a Games for everyone. At our Closing Ceremony, we can say that these were a Games by everyone.” That sense of a proud group effort was amplified by the audience’s role in creating visual magic, but also by the dominating presence of both adult and child volunteers among the performers. Like the Opening Ceremony, this meant that the overall choreography was clearly tailored to a limited skill set. But it contributed to the infectious inclusiveness of the event.
Despite some sound glitches that muffled the vocals, the handover segment at the end, in which 2016 host city Rio de Janeiro took up the flame, gave a promising taste of what’s to come four years from now. Anchored by a broom-wielding Renato Sorriso, a former street-sweeper who has become a regular Carnival fixture, the eight-minute sequence married glammed-up street culture with mythological figures, Capoeira fighters and futuristic flourishes to conjure the bustle of the Copacabana promenade. And judging by his rapturous reception, the crowd couldn’t have asked for a more beloved ambassador than soccer superstar Pele.
Both the Rio preview and the rousing Britpop marathon that preceded it were a reminder that the Olympics are as much about spectacle as sport.