If you had asked me a few years ago if I thought Michael Douglas and Matt Damon could make for an engaging and believable romantic couple, I probably would have laughed in your face. If you then continued to tell me that the pair would actually be portraying Liberace and his young lover, I would have -- well, I probably would have continued to laugh in your face. Now, don't get me wrong, both actors are more than capable performers, but the odd pairing just doesn't scream "captivating chemistry." Well, it turns out that such an assumption from me would have been dead wrong, and now we have the proof. I mean, just look at that cover!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, 'Behind the Candelabra' presents an intimate, funny, and genuinely dramatic peek into the colorful pianist's personal life, exposing a romance that starts off innocent enough but soon becomes increasingly chaotic, twisted, and unhealthy. As passion transitions into spite, and affection transforms into jealousy, the two tormented lovers engage in a roller coaster ride of emotions, all set against the backdrop of the over-the-top glitz and glamour of showbiz wealth and fame.
Based on the 1988 memoir "Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace," the film focuses on the real-life relationship between Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young aspiring veterinarian, and an aging Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flashy superstar pianist. After being introduced to each other backstage at one of the musician's shows, the two instantly take a liking toward one another, and soon Liberace hires Scott to be his personal assistant. Their relationship then quickly becomes romantic, but things ultimately start to take a darker turn. As plastic surgery, drugs, and jealousy take hold, their coupling becomes damaging, threatening to unravel both their lives.
The story is essentially told from Thorson's perspective, and he serves as our window into Liberace's lavish world. At first overwhelmed by the flashy entertainer's extravagant lifestyle, the once modest and innocent young man eventually comes to embrace the many perks that come his way. In fact, he ultimately goes a little too far, and Matt Damon does a great job with the stark transformation, gradually shifting the character's personality until he's barely recognizable (inside and out). Forced to have plastic surgery and take drugs for weight loss by Liberace, Thorson has a bit of a crisis of identity, and the actor plays up the man's increasing confusion and frustrations perfectly -- all while remaining infatuated with the very source of his problems.
Of course, as radical as Damon's transformation is, it's nothing compared to Michael Douglas' impressive metamorphosis into Liberace. I must admit, at first I couldn't help but see the famous actor behind the facade, but as the runtime continued, Douglas gradually disappeared into the role, truly embodying the character. With a solid approximation of the flamboyant star's distinct voice and mannerisms, and some great costumes and makeup as his groundwork to build upon, the actor goes on to offer a multifaceted portrayal that never feels like an imitation or a caricature. Instead, he feels like a real person, full of insecurity, loneliness, longing, eccentricity, and vulnerability, exposing the actual man behind the larger-than-life persona.
Together, Damon and Douglas form a completely believable couple, and at first their courtship is more or less positive. A lot of the film is dedicated to pillow talk between the two, and their conversations feel intimate and natural. Likewise, the film doesn't shy away from their physical interactions, providing a frank depiction of sex. A great deal of loving humor is also derived from the characters' innate eccentricities (again, just look at that cover!), and the filmmakers play up some of the inherent silliness and strangeness of the subject matter to great effect (Rob Lowe's character is especially memorable) without ever really sacrificing emotion or drama.
With that said, as funny as a lot of the runtime can be, the narrative does eventually take some increasingly dark and unsettling turns, revealing the affair's more disturbing elements, including a particularly creepy desire from Liberace to adopt Thorson and literally re-shape him in his own image. This all leads to an interesting examination of emotional control, facades, fickle infatuations, the pitfalls of fame, and the consequences of insatiable desires. What starts out as a supportive relationship grows ugly and petty, and it becomes hard to watch as the two lovers try to spite each other in painful ways.
Though the subject matter might seem inherently flashy on the surface, Soderbergh mostly plays against expectations, and instead offers a rather restrained approach, opting for a more functional and modest cinematic form that adheres to a fittingly vintage look. Often letting the characters and situations simply speak for themselves, the director engenders a personal, intimate mood with well crafted shots and movements that, while artistically designed, don't really draw attention to the filmmaking. That's not to say that the movie is completely without spectacle, however, and there are key scenes where Soderbergh definitely turns up the dial on his style knob.
Several recreations of Liberace's on stage performances are all appropriately showy, with a few quick cutting close-ups of the talented artist's impressive finger work gliding across his piano. Some later scenes that follow Thorson through his drug addiction are also home to more kinetic visuals, with disorienting moving shots that go in and out of focus, replicating the characters' own distraught and paranoid state of mind. As one might expect, the production design itself is also dazzling, bringing the performer's shining costumes and extravagant homes to life, adding an invaluable sense of outrageous character and personality to the proceedings. And then of course there's the film's finale, which features a brief excursion into the surreal, playing up Liberace's penchant for glitzy excess one last time to great success.
According to reports before the movie's release, Soderbergh apparently shopped the project around to several major studios, but all of them balked at the notion of making a film based on the topic. After watching the completed movie, I really can't see what they were objecting too. Sure, the concept isn’t exactly commercial (OK, it's pretty damn far from commercial), but with Damon, Douglas, and Soderbergh all on board, it at least had a good chance of drawing critical success and perhaps even some awards recognition (all things it has indeed garnered even in its small screen incarnation). Regardless, thankfully HBO snatched up the project, and the results are more than worthwhile. An intimate examination of jealousy, romance, overindulgence, and the crazy, hurtful things we can do to one another when love is involved, 'Behind the Candelabra' successfully peels back the surface layers of Liberace's later life, offering an emotional, humorous, thoughtful, and appropriately sparkling piece of filmmaking.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO presents 'Behind the Candelabra' in a Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo pack. A single BD-25 disc is housed in a keepcase along with instructions for a downloadable digital dopy. Some skippable trailers play upon start up before the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is Region A compatible.
The film is presented in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Shot on the Red Epic, the film has a distinct style that looks quite nice on Blu-ray, enhancing the glittery, retro content of the story well.
The digital source is mostly clean, but there is a light layer of noise visible from time to time, and a few isolated spikes in noise during darker scenes that can be a little distracting. The picture adheres to an intentionally soft appearance with a faintly diffuse glow that helps to create a certain "vintage" look. Though this softer quality does limit detail, clarity is still good and there is a solid sense of depth and fine textures in characters and wardrobe choices. To this end, all of Liberace's extravagant, glittery costumes sparkle off the screen and one can make out every speck of sequins. Colors are often cast in a golden sheen, and while the palette isn't particularly varied, the aesthetic fits nicely with the 70s and 80s setting. Thankfully, contrast is well balanced with steady black levels and good shadow delineation.
Appropriately stylized with a soft, golden glow, 'Behind the Candelabra' looks very good on Blu-ray, preserving the director's intentions without any major issues.
The movie is provided with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and a Spanish DTS 2.0 track. Optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included. Modest but relatively engaging, this is a solid, albeit restrained mix.
Speech is clear and well prioritized, giving ample presence to Douglas' distinct take on Liberace's trademark voice. The track is fairly front-loaded, but effects like crowd reactions and applause during shows do hit the surrounds. Likewise, other ambient effects like crickets or background clatter in a rowdy club are dispersed naturally around the soundstage. Directionality is decent as well, with a few key sounds (like a door slamming off to the side) being relegated to the appropriate speakers. The piano music itself comes through with wonderful clarity and dimension, bringing great range and depth to the musical performances. With that said, the movie as a whole is rather quiet, with a subdued sense of space. Likewise, bass activity is negligible.
The sound design is a little subdued, but the more delicate approach works well with the intimate subject matter. A bit more texture and immersion would have been welcomed, but as a whole this is a fitting mix.
'Behind the Candelabra' offers an intimate peek into superstar pianist Liberace's personal life and his turbulent affair with a younger man. Through their story, director Steven Soderbergh shines a particularly glittering light on a fascinating real-life figure, while simultaneously examining interesting concepts dealing with love, jealousy, excess, and fame. The Blu-ray features a strong video presentation that respects the director's intended aesthetic, and a solid audio mix. Sadly, we only get one brief featurette, but it's still worth a look. While this isn't the most impressive disc, the technical presentation is good and the film itself is a well crafted biopic that will likely even appeal to those who might seem apprehensive about its subject matter. Recommended.