Rapper Dizzee Rascal performs at the Olympics opening ceremony. (Cameron Spencer / Getty…)
Watching the five-hour opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics was a fun game of "Spot The Song." Mute the volume, and you were likely to miss selections from the Sex Pistols. Or the Jam. Or Adele. Or music from "Monty Python's Flying Circus."
As directed by celebrated filmmaker Danny Boyle, these Olympics got a tuneful kickoff that traveled at the speed of sound across this history of British pop. Boyle is known for his inventive uses of music in films: "Trainspotting" turned a whole generation on to the music of Iggy Pop (among other legends), and his "Slumdog Millionaire" paired electronic rapper M.I.A. with Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman.
Underworld, the electronic act Boyle first worked with on 1996's "Trainspotting," partnered with the director for the Olympics. The duo crafted original music for the ceremony and helped program extended musical segments such as for the Parade of Nations. All told, Boyle's opening ceremony was as much a celebration of song as it was sport.
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Here, Pop & Hiss reviews the ceremony from a pop music perspective.
Punk rock: The filmed opening montage for the ceremony was thrilling, a rocket-ride, perfect even. But it was cinema, and left a question: How can Boyle possibly keep up this pace for about five hours? The answer was: He couldn't, and once cameras dropped into the Olympic Stadium, the ceremony took a turn toward live theater on a huge scale -- and the filmed segment became a tour of Britain with a soundtrack of children's choirs and esteemed actor Kenneth Branagh reciting lines from "The Tempest."
No one, however, would have guessed that the Olympics ceremony would begin with a song by a band whose name can't even be printed on this website, yet there was "Surf Solar" from that unnameable band as cameras flew over London to fragments of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and the Clash's "London Calling." Punk rock has come a long way in 35 years. The songs alternated with clips of high-speed railways and quacking ducks. This was all energy, all full-speed-ahead, but delivered with a sense of humor, recalling the magical feel of Boyle's "Millions." Added bonus: a shot of a Pink Floyd pig soaring over London.
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Thanks for the tip on using drums, Beijing: Four years ago, the Beijing Olympics began with more than 2,000 drummers banging away in precise, haunting rhythm. It was a nod to ancient instruments, and it was given a sci-fi makeover, as Olympic musicians pounded away with light sticks.
Bejing's rhythms were impressive, delivered with militaristic steadiness; Boyle packed the Olympic Stadium with drummers as well, but he put the emphasis on emotion, staging the beats with exaggerated theatricality. Towers erupted from the ground, rings lifted to the sky and Branagh presided over all of it.
Celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie, deaf since a young age, led 1,000 volunteer drummers as factory smokestacks then burst through the greenery. If imagery ripped from the Industrial Revolution doesn't exactly scream "let the Games begin," the sheer rhythmic pulse of the moment was hard to resist. Said one BBC commenter, "It's such a sound, so powerful, to look at the Industrial Revolution this way. If you're at home and you have a remote control, turn up the volume just a little bit to get a sense of what we're feeling."
Indeed, these images, divorced from sound, wouldn't have had nearly the pull. Some actors were dressed as farmers, others as women suffragists, and the mix-and-match approach to English history was at times oddly jolting, especially when a crew of men looking like Abraham Lincoln began dancing with shovels as if they were in a Spice Girls video.
Yet it worked. Even at its most silly the scene was driven by music that gave way to uplifting electronics and never swayed from its emphasis on the beat. The sound was all forward momentum, and when the rhythms took hold, the orchestration found a way to dissolve and rev-up. Sure, the whistling seemed uncomfortably close to "Wind of Change," but this was Olympic optimism at its most beat-heavy.
Sgt. Pepper! It was fun seeing marchers dressed in "Sgt. Pepper" garb, but it was a bit too facile as a reference for the entirety of the 1960s. It also distilled a generation into a pleasant cartoon. Granted, no one is looking at the Olympics to provide biting commentary of its host nation's past -- nor does anyone really want that at a party -- but the Beatles have better albums, and this was revisionist history at its most obvious.
The James Bond theme: Mixed feelings here. Once John Barry's Bond fanfare blared throughout the stadium, we knew what was to come. It was a wee bit odd to see Daniel Craig's James Bond treated as a nonfictional character, one who must open the Olympic Games, complete with the queen's corgis in supporting roles.