Behind the Candelabra (US - BD RA)
Jonathan checks out the HBO film directed by Steven Soderbergh...
Outrageous entertainer and flamboyant pianist whose stage and television career spanned 40 years, Liberace (Michael Douglas) lived lavishly and embraced a lifestyle of excess.In the summer of 1977 handsome young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) walked into his dressing room and, despite their age difference and seemingly different worlds, the two embarked on a secretive five-year love affair. Behind the Candelabra captures the essence of Liberace's appeal while taking a behind-the-scenes look at their tempestuous relationship. (From the HBO synopsis)
It is practically indisputable that HBO makes quality television these days, but their films have always been more of a hit or miss affair. They were smart to pick up Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra after Hollywood studios allegedly thought the film was "too gay". It even played the Cannes Film Festival this year, which isn't common for a TV movie. Even though it aired on TV, this is a quality production that fits right alongside Soderbergh's wider theatrical releases. Every performance and set piece wages war on the associations that come with being "a TV movie".
At the center of it all is Michael Douglas giving a wonderful performance as Liberace. He sells the man's showmanship on stage, but he also makes Liberace a vulnerable and sympathetic presence in his personal life. His skilled performance is met by an understated and equally impressive turn from Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, Liberace's much younger lover. The screenplay intelligently portrays their romance like they are just any other intimate couple. Douglas and Damon's bold performances go a long way to sell the romantic aspect of the story. It's not all couples drama though. They both indulge in the excessive lifestyle that Liberace was known for. They get plastic surgery together and buy ridiculous things. I've never seen a romance like this portrayed before, and it was never boring. The production team behind the movie have done a wonderful job with Liberace's homes and wardrobe. They look just as ridiculous and expensive as the real thing.
What's especially nice about Behind the Candelabra is Soderbergh's handling of tone. This material could have easily felt like an exploitive tabloid special - especially toward the end when the big breakup and Thorson's lawsuit for palimony is being covered. But Soderbergh, being the mindful filmmaker and human being that he is, shows empathy for these two men throughout the ordeal. One can't escape the feeling that you're privy to a lifestyle that Liberace wanted to remain hidden, but that changed when Scott Thorson published his memoirs. Despite the sometimes troubling feeling that you're invading a person's privacy, the material is handled with a great level of respect that most biopics fail to achieve. It's also a really funny movie. Try not to laugh in horror at Rob Lowe's portrayal of Dr. Jack Startz, a plastic surgeon with a stiff face that hurts to look at. Dan Aykroyd gets a fun turn as Seymour Heller, Liberace's agent.
HBO lives up to their reputation with this strong 1080p transfer. Soderbergh continues to use the Red Epic, which produces a very clean digital look. I usually find that films shot on the Red look soft, but this is especially true due to the stylish choices made here. The image often looks slightly over-exposed and lighter colors have an extra glow to them. It's a good match for the shiny, glowing excess that is Liberace's home and wardrobe. Detail and dynamic range aren't as strong as a result, and occasionally the image looks downright blurry. There is still plenty of texture and vibrancy to the image to make good use of the format. Those looking carefully can find some compression artefacts, but they are mostly limited to some minor blocking and hardly ever affect anything happening in the foreground.
This disc comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that does wonders. The opening shot approaches Scott Thorson's back in a bar, slowly coming into focus. It's accompanied by muffled music that immediately brings activity to all sound channels. Every musical piece, starting with Liberace's Boogie Woogie, bring the sound mix wonderfully to life. Aside from sounding like the music is being performed on a stage in a concert hall, it also brings each sound channel to life. It is delightful to listen to. Aside from the music, the rear channels don't get much activity aside from some passive background noise. Dialogue is crisp and clear. There is nothing to complain about on the audio front. This is a solid, lively mix.
The only feature on the disc is The Making of Behind the Candelabra (HD, 14:04). This is a short but sweet look behind the scenes. There is a good amount of interview footage with Damon, Douglas, and Lowe. Damon and Douglas talk a lot about having to be comfortable with each other on set. Damon talks about how working with another director would've made a role like this really difficult, but he trusted Soderbergh's methods. Lowe gets to talk about how he made his face so horrifying. The filmmakers get a chance to share some words about the real Liberace and his legacy. There's also some great footage of the detail that went into Liberace's home. I wish it was longer, but there is a ton of awesome stuff crammed into these 14 minutes.
Since I started this review Michael Douglas has won a much deserved Emmy for his portrayal of Liberace. He is reason enough to see Behind the Candelabra, but it also has a wonderful supporting cast and reliable, sensitive direction from Steven Soderbergh. HBO continues to deliver quality audio and video on Blu-ray, but sadly there is only one extra on the disc.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 17th September 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: The Making of Behind the Candelabra
Easter Egg: No
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Eric Zuckerman
Genre: Drama and Romance
Length: 118 minutes
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