Monday, 13 August 2012

London Olympics Closing Ceremonies

As readers of my blog will know, I like to put in my own two cents' worth of commentary on all the Olympics ceremonies and London is no different.

Now everyone has their own musical taste and favourites. I am not going to weigh in with the myriad of comments about the choices of musical stars for the London Closing Ceremonies as have countless others. Suffice it to say, there was something for everyone and the event left little doubt that it was all about the British contribution to pop music. How it was executed and the production values of that execution are another matter.

For an event that was not as technical as Beijing, I think that the producers did a really credible job, especially with the stadium lighting, that in my view, made the show. Sure, a few times key show components were left in the dark, but overall, it was well done. Again, as in the opening, the lighting in the seating was fabulous and provided an awesome stage backdrop for the musical acts.

Audio though, left a lot to be desired. Lip synching at events of this magnitude unfortunately seems to be the norm now. Some performers were well rehearsed; others not so. Of course producers have to do it. For any of you out there who have attempted anything even remotely as complex, you will realize that it is virtually impossible to pull off this type of event with its continuous - and rapid - stage changes without some technical glitches, hence the need for pre-recording. It also allows for improved audio in the massive arena environment so that volume - and feedback - no longer becomes a concern. Certainly for fixed stage acts, it becomes easier to perform live; however, for moving acts, it is a lot harder (can you say Spice Girls?). A notable exception last night was the Brazilian presentation which, I am pretty sure, was all live. As a result, the audio suffered and so did the impact of the presentation because the volume that was needed FOR the impact was just not there. How or why this happened, I won't even speculate on.

The theatrics of changing the acts and of presentation was generally very creative. It was essentially a basic alternating of stages, one in the centre of the stadium and the other at the end of the stadium, Nothing complicated there. Several of the entrances and exits and transformations were cool, though. My personal favourites were:

  1. Entrance of Annie Lennox on some sort of demonic pirate ship (wasn't thrilled with her performance but liked the ship).
  2. Morphing of Russell Brand's bus into a giant octopus.
  3. The Spice Girls' entrance and drive-around in LED-illuminated London taxis.
  4. Building of a giant pyramid of white blocks carried by costumed and choreographed volunteers to the Kate Bush song "Running Up That Hill."
  5. John Lennon's 3D face.
  6. Eric Idle's resurrection and performance.
Overall, I enjoyed the variety of acts and the general production although some of the meaning of the segments was probably lost on the global audience. A good effort.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A Review of the Creative Part of the London Olympics Opening Ceremonies

Well, it's taken two or three viewings of the London Opening Ceremonies but, as promised, here are my thoughts on them.

First of all - and costs aside - don't even attempt to compare them with the Beijing Opening Ceremonies. They both come from opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum. Beijing concentrated on technological spectacle augmented by precision choreography of massive numbers of performers. London concentrated on pseudo-spontaneous theatricality augmented by technology. Producer Danny Boyle's theatre and movie background was obvious as he wove a story line of British history since the 19th century with music, dance, and technology. Although at times it was convoluted and quirky, it nevertheless was ultimately very successful. Here are some of my personal favourite moments and also some questionable moments.

Favourite Moments and Concepts - What Worked
  1. Slightly over-the-top steampunk meets the computer age opening segment of toiling 19th century workers and the construction of the Olympic rings. Great special effects, good design of the rising smokestacks, well-costumed performers, wonderful drummers and music. The choice of Sir Kenneth Branagh to play the part of engineer I.K. Brunel (he built some of the world's largest steamships, railways, bridges, etc,etc) was a good one.
  2. Fabulous segment on the National Health Service. Mike Oldfield's instrumental rock music was spot on and an interesting choice. The kids were all great, as they were for all segments, and were obviously an important ingredient for the entire ceremonies. The flying monsters and multitude of Mary Poppins were a cool idea and added to the fantasy. Good choreography of them and hospital staff.
  3. Use of comedy. Boyle did a great job of combining video and live performance for comedy. Of particular note was the Queen's arrival accompanied by "James Bond" and for me, Mr. Bean's participation as a musician and dreaming Olympic runner in which he nicely added the "Bean" touch to the beach running scene from the movie "Chariots of Fire."
  4. Use of technology. Rigging, general stadium lighting, fireworks were all excellent. There was a lot of rigging for flying and it was amazing that nothing got mixed up. Audio, except for a couple of very momentary lapses, was almost perfect for such a large venue. I never counted the number of suspended line arrays around the stadium but there were a lot. Of special mention, however, was the use of LED panels attached to each seat which allowed for complete control of the audience graphics. It must have been a huge cost but forever ended worries about whether audience members would hold up signs at the right time. Also brilliant was the first-time use of social media in the performances - or at least the reference to it. Interestingly, a web site called "emoto" ( actually began on the first day of the Olympics and can track and graph the emotional responses of audiences based on all the tweets coming in on a particular subject. Worth checking out.
  5. Music. Apart from everything else, the ceremonies were about music and the amazing legacy left to the world by British musicians. From children's choirs and traditional songs, to the new age rock of Oldfield, to the British invasion, and modern bands, there was no end of material for Boyle to use to back up the dancers and performers. Performances by the children's choirs all over Britain, "Abide with Me" sung by Emeli Sande, the Arctic Monkeys' performance, the wildly colourful musical/dance segment from the 50s to the present were all fabulous.
  6. Olympic cauldron. Very creative design, and all the arms - or maybe they were flowers - worked!!
What Did Not Work
  1. Starting British history in the 19th century. I was a bit disappointed that Boyle chose to begin his history lesson with the 19th century rather than include some of the more distant exciting past of the British Isles, like Stonehenge, the Magna Carta, and the unique character of the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh peoples. I'm sure he must have agonized on where to begin as there is only so much time allotted.
  2. Why David Beckham to carry the flame at an important juncture? He's never been an Olympian that I know of.
  3. Why Paul McCartney to end it all? He would not have been my personal choice. I think he struggled with trying to get a huge stadium crowd to participate in "Hey, Jude." If Boyle wanted an aging rocker why not someone a little more musically eloquent, like Sting or Eric Clapton? Or if he wanted just plain old-fashioned stadium rock, why not prune-faced Mick and the Stones? "Start me Up" would easily have them all rocking. Again, it's probably just me.
Apart from these very minor points, I think Boyle scored a bullseye. Well done!