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Review: Danny Boyle's Witty, Subversive & Spectacular Opening Ceremony For London 2012 Olympics Was A Triumph

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 28, 2012 at 10:57AM

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.
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Olympics Queen Parachute

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).

Olympics Winged Cyclist

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.
 

Olympics Torch

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] 

This article is related to: Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Craig, Review


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