Just when we think eclectic director Steven Soderbergh has made his last film before making good on his promise of retirement – this year’s Side Effects looked be his final bow at one point – he goes and releases another. This time it’s Behind the Candelabra, an entertaining, insightful and multi-faceted look at the unique life of Liberace (played by Michael Douglas), arguably the most flamboyant entertainer of all time.
There’s always a danger with biopics, especially those about famous musicians, that it focuses on their entire life and follows a set-path of ups and downs that while often pleasing for die hard fans can sometimes feel like they’re only skimming the surface and never really giving us a true sense of what makes the person at the centre of the story tick. Not so with Behind the Candelabra.
Instead of taking a lifelong sweeping approach to the story, Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (Water for Elephants, The Bridges of Madison County) focuses on a very specific period of Liberace’s life in which he had a secret affair with Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), upon whose memoirs the film is based. This allows the film to paint an intimate portrait of a man and the sort of relationship not very often shown on the big-screen, at least not this candidly.
Amid the flamboyance and extravagance, both in the what of Liberace’s life and how it’s presented in that inimitable Soderbergh style, there’s a tender story at the heart of it. The reason that works is largely down to believable performances, with actors really going all out in potentially parodist roles to ground them in reality. Casting Douglas as the ostentatious Liberace is a stroke of genius and as him he gives one of the finest performances of the year thus far, disappearing into the role completely. At first it might seem like a surface impression, when you initially hear the voice and see the way he carries himself, but before long it settles into a rounded and utterly convincing portrayal.
While you ultimately walk away thinking of Douglas’ performance, Damon also does an excellent job in the difficult role of Scott, a man dazzled by Liberace and his way of life, unable to resist becoming a permanent part of it. There’s also great supporting turns from the likes of Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s greedy manager and particularly Rob Lowe who is almost unrecognisable as his go-to plastic surgeon, doing a lot with a very limited role and providing for one of the film’s most entertaining scenes in which he’s asked to perform surgery on Scott.
Soderbergh pitches this biopic just right by getting under the skin of the incomparable showman, allowing us an often scandalous view behind the curtain – or behind the candelabra as the title states – without delving into clichéd biopic territory. It’s also a bit of cautionary tale about obsession and control, showing how such things can threaten to get in the way of a meaningful relationship, but it never once feels heavy-handed or preachy. This is a fun and welcoming film as much as it is an emotional one, mixing humour and drama to great effect. It’s played exceptionally well by both its lead and supporting actors who help make this a film that’s entertaining, surprising and moving in equal measure.
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