Critic’s Notebook: This is the best of musical Britain? Blimey!
The most memorable musical moments during Sunday night’s closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics arrived like vivid hallucinations: a massive choir singing the chorus to the Beatles’ “Because” while an actor playing Winston Churchill recited a passage from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” from atop a replica of Big Ben; the ska band Madness performing its hit “Our House” while hundreds of choreographed dancers mimicked homespun joys like kids throwing birthday parties and civil servants fixing London potholes.
The famous British supermodels vogueing and strutting to David Bowie’s indictment of the fashion world, “Fashion,” was equally odd: Kate Moss walking down the runway just as Bowie’s song arrived at the lyric, “We are the goon squad, and we’re coming to town. Beep-beep.” Did that really happen?
Or Russell Brand megaphoning the words to “I Am the Walrus” while riding on the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” bus? Dozens of dancers doing a Sisyphus move by pushing boulders up mountains while Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” played along?
For sheer Vegas ridiculousness, the closing ceremony’s creative director and choreographer, Kim Gavin, may deserve a high-five, but the chaos of unchecked spectacle, coupled with a dart board’s worth of British B-listers and a few bankable exports (Muse, George Michael, Jessie J), does not a medal earn. Stretching to nearly three hours in the live-stream version I watched, Gavin did little to showcase a musical culture at its Olympian peak.
Unlike Danny Boyle’s wonderfully entertaining opening ceremony, the closing was at times so ridiculous that it bordered on camp. What was supposed to celebrate one of GreatBritain’s most vital cultural exports, music, accomplished the opposite. (When Muse ends up being a highlight of an Olympic concert, you know an empire is in decline.)
The ceremony, horror of horrors, didn’t even include a Rolling Stones or Roxy Music song — but featured the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” on two different occasions. It was like an argument against Boyle’s aesthetic. In fact, when Monty Python’s Eric Idle performed a song from the comedy troupe’s classic parody of Christianity, “Life of Brian,” I halfway expected to learn that this was all a hilarious joke.
Instead, in yet more evidence that Cirque du Soleil’seye and ear have become the de facto template for all of Earth’s major spectacle, Gavin offered an extended workout routine featuring ghost images of Great Britain’s musical past — John Lennon and Freddie Mercury (both of whom at least warrant Tupac-style “appearances” by now), along with in-the-flesh, but semi-retired, famous musicians, in the form of the Who, Annie Lennox, the Kate Bush dancers, Fatboy Slim, Take That and the Spice Girls. A few young bucks — Jessie J, One Direction and Ed Sheeran (the former performing Queen, the latter performing Pink Floyd) — arrived to wake up the napping kids.
There was a highlight, and his name was George Michael, who arrived onstage as though he’d leaped a tall building to get there. Unlike some of the artists before and after him, Michael, like any self-respecting English vocalist, didn’t need to lip sync; dressed in his best leather casuals, the king of British pop music offered his certified anthem “Freedom,” walking across the stage with a lighted-up swagger that exuded bad-ass royalty.
Ray Davies, too, owned his ode to English life, “Waterloo Sunset,” as the 2012 Olympics wound down. A classic song about living the quiet life away from the “millions of people swarming like flies round Waterloo Underground,” Davies’ gem might not have been the best evidence of a revived competitive British spirit — “as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise,” he sang — but at least it was honest and real.
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