Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, Scott Bakula, Tom Papa, Nicky Katt, Cheyenne Jackson, Paul Reiser, Boyd Holbrook, David Koechner
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Expectations: High. I’m becoming quite the Soderbergh fan.
As I sit here wondering where to start the review, I’m realizing that articulating what I liked and didn’t like about Behind the Candelabra is going to be tough. What I can easily say is that just about everything I loved about the film stems from the performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and Scott Thorson respectively. The duo is absolutely smashing together, so even when the film hits some dull, obvious scenes through its relatively standard biopic arc, it’s hard to knock the film too much because the sheer amount of acting prowess on display is huge. Douglas and Damon would be high on the contention list for the Oscars if this wasn’t a film made for HBO.
Behind the Candelabra begins by showing us how Scott comes to meet Liberace. Scott works as a dog trainer on films, hoping to one day parlay his passion for working with animals into a career as a veterinarian. His life path shifts when his buddy Bob (Scott Bakula) takes him to a Liberace show. The performance dazzles Scott (and every other audience member), and when Scott goes backstage with Bob, Liberace immediately takes notice of Scott’s youth and good looks. There are warning signs all around Scott, but in the face of such showmanship, he can’t help but get sucked in.
The audience is also drawn into Liberace’s world, as Soderbergh skillfully films it as sparkling and brilliant as possible. Every sequin reflects light like a champ, and every crystal on every candelabra does the same. Liberace’s world is one of excessive exuberance and Soderbergh captures this perfectly. But he never allows the camerawork to take on the excessive quality of Liberace’s flamboyance. Soderbergh’s camera is solid and often static, existing in contrast to the wild flaunting of riches on screen.
But while the dramatics and the technical aspects are impressive, perhaps the most astonishing facet of the film are the scenes when Michael Douglas is tasked with playing the piano. There are usual tricks when filming scenes like this with non-musical actors, but Soderbergh daringly shows Douglas playing the piano, and it looks convincingly real. So real that I am somewhat obsessed with knowing how they did it. I’ve narrowed it down to three main options: 1. Douglas is a piano player as skilled as Liberace; 2. Douglas had fantastic trainer that taught him how to look the part; 3. There was some CG enhancement, such as Douglas’s head being placed on the body of someone playing the piano or some other similar trickery. Actually, I don’t think I want to know. In terms of selling the idea that Michael Douglas is capable of playing the piano, Behind the Candelabra gets a top score.
As a film that did not receive a theatrical release, I feel like there is a general mentality that it is “less than” compared to those that did. When it comes to Behind the Candelabra that couldn’t be further from the truth, as Soderbergh and his talented cast and crew have created THE Liberace biopic. The only reason it landed on HBO is that no other studio wanted to fund it as they saw it as a risky project (in terms of box office draw). But with its success, I hope that Behind the Candelabra pushes more directors to seek daring projects that major studios would balk at producing. The audience is definitely out there, and we’re hungry.
Hopefully this isn’t Soderbergh’s final film, but if it is, it’s a good one to go out on.