‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013) is a dazzling revelation.

4 Jun

Behind the Candelabra posterBefore Elvis, before Elton John and before Freddie Mercury, there was Liberace. If you’re like me and know nothing about the bombastically flamboyant and over-the-top pianist of the sixties and seventies, then Behind the Candelabra is a simultaneously hilarious and educational experience, bursting as it is with camp humour, diamond-encrusted fur coats, destructive arguments and, most noticeably, lots of sex..

Based on the memoirs of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s secret lover, and directed by the legendary Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Contagion, the Ocean’s series), Behind the Candelabra is a drama-comedy-biopic hybrid (dromopic?) starring Michael Douglas as the ageing superstar. While approaching middle-age with about as much grace as a hippo on rollerskates, he runs into Scott Thorson; a ridiculous blond wig with Matt Damon lurking underneath. Deep conversations about Liberace’s lack of children and Scott’s lack of parents lead them to form a Platonic father-son relationship, which quickly turns sexual as more and more bubbly jacuzzi baths are shared.

Liberace’s joyous extroversion is completely at odds with Scott’s more subtle introversion, yet an uncontrollable attraction develops; they are opposite poles of the same magnet. Ructions arise as the former’s insatiable sexuality clashes with the latter’s addiction to various narcotics, and the resulting sparks are portrayed, in traditional Soderbergh fashion, with powerful honesty. Priceless vases fly and words cut to the bone, but it’s all handled with grace and an appreciation for the characters’ situation: namely that of a forbidden love in a prejudiced, constantly-watching society.

The makeup and costume design are both top-notch: the highlight being the wig Damon stole from Jon Bon Jovi.

The makeup and costume design are both top-notch: the highlight being the wig Damon stole from Jon Bon Jovi.

Many laughs are had against this backdrop of Las Vegas hedonism. While some of the humour is very contextual and audience-specific (jokes about Jane Fonda making too many ‘message movies’ may fly over heads), Douglas does a sterling job at playing a preposterous, larger-than-life character whose mere presence elicits roars of laughter. Damon is forced to embody the ‘straight man’ (heh) in the face of such crazy exuberance, but Rob Lowe, who plays Scott’s drug dealer and plastic surgeon, deserves special acclaim. Every one of his scenes is downright hilarious; from his stoned facial expressions to what comes out of his substance-ridden mouth, he is a total hoot.

The pacing is a little clunky – the film takes a good twenty minutes to summon any laughs, but once the train gets rolling, it stays on course for the remainder of its 118 minute-duration. All the razzmatazz brings to mind The Great Gatsby of recent weeks, but where the two films differ is in execution rather than aesthetics: while Gatsby is an ironically shallow experience, there is far more to this particular film than gratuitous glam. Laden with equal amounts of innuendo, great acting, and cocaine, Behind the Candelabra is a raucous and incredibly entertaining comedy concealing a poignant, heartstring-tugging drama. An excellent movie.

[Written for The Student Standard]

Simon says: worth seeing for the rhinestone-studded clothing alone.

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