Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics: Review

2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony
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Fiery rings, representing both the Olympics and the Industrial Revolution, are lit and lifted during the Opening Ceremony.

The ballsy choice of Danny Boyle to oversee the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony yielded a unique take on large-canvas nation-themed spectacle that is likely to go down as one of the more eccentric and memorable kickoffs in the Games' history.

Kenneth Branagh, J.K. Rowling, Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, David Beckham, Paul McCartney, Daniel Craig and Queen Elizabeth II were among the eclectic featured cast of director Danny Boyle's wild and whimsical Olympics opener.

Details of the $42 million opening ceremony of the 30th Summer Olympics have 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 – was never 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.

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The three-hour ceremony was the brainchild of Boyle, with the creative consultancy of Stephen Daldry, two Brit directors who have successfully straddled film and theater. And 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 playful irreverence, unexpected humor and even darkness. From the puffy 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.

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The biggest surprise was an actual acting cameo from Queen Elizabeth II herself. 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 by far the most striking work was the brilliantly conceptualized live opening, broken into three parts labeled The Green and Pleasant Land, Pandemonium and Frankie and June Say Thanks to Tim. The three parts were cast with a multiethnic crowd heavier on Joe Public volunteers than rigorously drilled professional performers.

Before the kickoff, farm animals milled in pens on the grassy fields of a village green, as agricultural workers tended their veggie patches, a waterwheel slowly turned, maypole dancers twirled and cricketers in period uniforms played a gentlemanly match. Dominating the visual field was a replica of Glastonbury Hill. Its grassy slopes – dotted with dandelions and daisies – evoked the British pastoral tradition with a simplicity that grew even more beautiful as the show progressed and the hill became home to the flags of the 204 participating countries. 

While different songs represented the various regions in this segment, a lone boy soprano singing William Blake’s verses to “Jerusalem” set the serene tone.

Boyle then turned somber with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, heralded by Kenneth Branagh in top coat and tall hat, playing pioneering British civil and mechanical engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Accompanied by dozens of drummers, Branagh read the “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises” speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was the inspiration for Boyle’s Isles of Wonder title and the show’s incorporation of dreams as a central element.

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As the farmers and villagers rolled up the turf, the scene made way for towering smokestacks that sprouted from the ground as the arena filled with factory workers, suffragettes, war veterans and – incongruously – a troop of Sgt. Pepper figures in brightly colored satin military jackets. Thematic cohesion wasn’t always a strong point but with so much to amuse the eye, who’s complaining? Blacksmiths toiled away at their furnaces to forge the Olympic rings, which were then hoisted above the stadium, raining down a shower of sparks in one of the show’s more awe-inspiring moments. 

This nod to paradise lost was one of Boyle’s boldest strokes, illustrating that Brit patriotism has an infinitely greater variety of shadings than the rah-rah American equivalent.

An extended tribute followed to – wait for it – the U.K.’s National Health Service. Mike Oldfield played “Tubular Bells,” while what looked like hundreds of volunteer nurses and medical professionals took on dance duty. The segment effectively tapped into Britain’s rich tradition of children’s literature via a celebration of Great Ormond Street Hospital, which was largely financed by royalties from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (an excerpt from which was read by J.K. Rowling). The naysayers in the divisive U.S. debate over universal healthcare might want to spend a moment contemplating the heartfelt pride that obviously went into this segment.

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As kids were tucked up under illuminated duvets, their bedtime reading conjured villains from Cruella de Vil to Captain Hook to the Queen of Hearts to Voldemort, all of them eventually banished by a flock of Mary Poppinses swooping in under flying umbrellas.

In amongst all this was a nod to the British film industry and its depiction of sports. The iconic Vangelis theme from Chariots of Fire was led by Rowan Atkinson in Mr. Bean guise, hammering away at a single synthesizer note while dreaming of his own athletic glory. This managed simultaneously to provide a daffy centerpiece while acknowledging the vital role of British humor in the popular culture – fart joke included.

The final part of this opening trilogy will no doubt be the most discussed, and while enjoyably messy, it was perhaps the least suited to stadium/television presentation. Basically a story of an average family in an average house, it evolved into a romance between two teens out on a Saturday night, Frankie and June. Their blossoming love served to illustrate the growing impact of social media in a bow to British web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. Projections on the house were a wonderful sampling of TV through the decades.

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While the storytelling wasn’t as lucid here as elsewhere, the music was a blast. Music supervisors for the event were Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of electronica outfit Underworld, who have had a long association with Boyle spanning from Trainspotting through his acclaimed National Theatre reimagining of Frankenstein last year. 

Among the pearls of the evening, galvanizing use was made of The Clash’s “London Calling” and The Jam’s “Going Underground.” But the Frankie and June chapter also served as a decade-by-decade salute to the British music industry that will no doubt cause a stampede on iTunes. From The Who and The Rolling Stones through The Kinks and The Beatles and then on into the glam-rock years with Mud, David Bowie and Queen, the choices were terrific. The Specials popped up, as did more Pistols as we moved into the punk era (what other country in the world would have the self-irony to include “Pretty Vacant” on its Olympics soundtrack?). Then came New Order, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Soul To Soul, The Eurythmics, The Prodigy and Amy Winehouse. Bliss.

There were plenty of glaring omissions of course: No Tears for Fears or Duran Duran from the ‘80s? No Blur or Oasis in the ‘90s bracket? No George Michael or Elton John or Kate Bush? And no Dusty Springfield??!! Are you kidding me? But personal gripes aside, the musical accompaniment that threaded the invention of the steam engine through to the arrival of the World Wide Web was tremendous.

The more pedestrian elements included a tribute to the fallen, with a somewhat stale modern-dance routine to “Abide With Me.” And the Parade of Nations is a format too set-in-stone to play with, though there was some fun to be had with the bizarrely random juxtaposition of national teams with odd musical choices – China with the Pet Shop Boys? Poland with Fleetwood Mac? Fiji with The Bee Gees might have been someone’s attempt at a haiku.

On a side note: What’s with those tacky gold-trimmed white tracksuits on the Brit team? And watching athletes endlessly texting, tweeting and taking photographs on their smart phones did make me wonder if they weren't somehow separating themselves from the actual experience of being there.

The lighting of the torch was preceded by an appearance from The Arctic Monkeys, one of the better live musical elements, doing “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (why not?) and a cover of “Come Together.” This served as backup to the stunning image of a squad of cyclists wearing illuminated wings to represent the doves at the early Olympics in Ancient Greece. The much ballyhooed Paul McCartney closing slot was a rousing singalong to “Hey Jude,” which added some sentimental value but was otherwise fairly standard Superbowl halftime stuff.

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The concluding fireworks (backed by Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse”) were, for once, truly spectacular, making the Macy’s July 4th show look like a bunch of kids with sparklers. One of the big secrets of the event was who would light the torch, which traveled its climactic leg up the Thames on a speedboat piloted by David Beckham. (Only the addition of a pouting Victoria could have made this more sublime.) 

Don’t read on if you haven’t yet watched the U.S. broadcast. But in a moving choice, rather than a single figure to light the torch, a group of young athletes in line for the next Olympics was chosen, pushing the “Inspire a Generation” theme. Each nation’s copper petal was lit before they came together to form a gorgeous fire flower on elevated stems. 

There’s been much talk about the collective gloom in Britain over the past year, with the economy in the toilet, crippling austerity measures being imposed, a hacking scandal exposing deep-rooted media corruption and a crisis of political faith. It was no doubt a well-considered choice to cut Britain’s captains of government out of the picture, with the exception of a cheesy CGI-animated Winston Churchill statue in the opening film. In an interview during planning, Boyle had said, “This is for everyone,” and in that sense, the show will likely be received at home as a welcome tonic.

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.