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Steven Soderbergh
Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe , Eric Zuckerman, Garrett M. Brown, Debbie Reynolds
Writing Credits:
Richard LaGravenese, Scott Thorson (book), Alex Thorleifson (book)

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and executive produced by Jerry Weintraub, this HBO Films drama recreates the glittering private world of Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flamboyant, phenomenally successful entertainer whose extravagant costumes, trademark candelabra, and elaborate stage shows made him the most bankable entertainer of his time. The story focuses on Liberace's tempestuous relationship with Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) in Las Vegas from 1977 to 1982 - a time when Liberace was at the peak of his popularity but remained closeted as a homosexual. Featuring a pair of electrifying performances by Douglas and Damon (the first time either has starred in an HBO production), Behind the Candelabra captures the essence of Liberace's appeal while reminding viewers how different attitudes were at the time, as few high-profile entertainers (including Liberace) could admit they were gay, at least in front of the public which made them stars.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Spanish DTS 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 118 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 9/17/13

• “The Making of Behind the Candelabra” Featurette


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Behind The Candelabra [Blu-Ray] (2013)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 1, 2013)

As of September 2013, Steven Soderbergh claims that he now sits in the ranks of retired filmmakers. I put this in “I’ll believe it when I (don’t) see it” territory, as I find it hard to accept that Soderbergh – only 50 and a workaholic who often put out two movies a year – will truly leave the business.

If he does, however, he finishes on an unusual note with Behind the Candelabra, a made-for-cable biopic about flamboyant pianist Liberace. The movie doesn’t follow the musician’s whole life, however, as it focuses on a specific period and relationship. We open in 1977 and meet 17-year-old Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young man from a troubled background who lives in a foster home and works as an animal wrangler in the movies.

With his new casual boyfriend Bob Black (Scott Bakula), Scott takes a fateful trip to Las Vegas, where they see Liberace (Michael Douglas) perform. Bob knows Liberace and introduces Scott to the musician after the show. The pair hit it off immediately and before long, Scott becomes Liberace’s personal assistant and lover. We follow their lives together through various ups and downs.

Some might prefer a Candelabra that offers a broader look at Liberace, but I’m happy with the focus it provides. Life-spanning biopics tend to come across as awfully compromised; they try to cram in so much during limited screentime that they feel like “greatest hits” and little more.

When done right, a project that concentrates on a certain era can offer both depth and breadth. We get the introspection that comes from the restricted scope, but we also find enough character material to let us “fill in the dots” and understand what fleshed out the participants’ lives.

So at its core, I like the focus found in Candelabra, but does that mean I approve of the film as a whole? Ehh – the movie has its moments and mostly entertains, but it comes with some significant flaws.

Of course, the salacious elements earned the movie its biggest headlines, especially given the casting involved. The sight of “A”-level male actors getting all hoochy-smoochy with each other certainly did a lot to bring attention to the film, though I don’t think it handles those elements in a gratuitous manner. Could Candleabra exist without the gay sex? Sure, but it’d feel false and sanitized. The movie doesn’t shy away from those scenes, but it doesn’t overindulge in them either.

That said, I find Candelabra to offer an unpleasant experience because I’m not particularly sure what purpose it serves. Indeed, it feels borderline cruel at times, as it paints a rather unflattering picture of Liberace. I guess we see a good side of the musician at times, but those elements become overwhelmed by his vanity, ego and self-centeredness.

The movie’s Liberace exists in a world with himself firmly at the center. Everything he does brings himself attention, and he wants all others to focus on his greatness. Granted, he does so with a bit of self-deprecating humor, but the point remains clear, and other people exist solely for his own gratification.

Is this a true portrait of Liberace? I have no idea, but given that it comes based on Thorson’s own accounts, I suspect a strong bias at work – especially since the original book came out in 1988, back when Thorson’s wounds would’ve remained fresh.

Perhaps the filmmakers attempted to work from additional sources as well, but if so, I don’t get that sense. Instead, Thorson remains the focus as the poor troubled youth corrupted by the charismatic older man. Do we ever get the sense that Thorson is anything but a victim? Not really; we watch him descend into a haze of drugs and bitterness solely due to Liberace’s demands and desires.

If the film brought any real sense of insight to the characters, I might not mind the ugly portrayal of Liberace, but that doesn’t occur. Thorson becomes the focal point much of the time, and that’s a problem, as he begins and ends as a big, fat zero. We don’t care about him at the start and that never changes; he may be the nominal “hero” but he’s virtually anonymous.

It doesn’t help that the movie miscasts Damon. Now 42, we’re supposed to believe him as a character who starts at 17 and spends most of the movie as a teenager or early 20-something.

Seriously? Sure, Damon looks young for his age, and the movie slathers on makeup and CGI to “freshen” him, but it just doesn’t work and it creates confusion. When the film opens, we see Scott in foster care – and immediately wonder why some old guy is still a ward of the state. Damon can’t pass for 27, much less 17, and I can’t suspend disbelief to accept him in the role. I like Damon and find him to be talented, but he was a bad choice for the part.

Douglas does much better as Liberace – indeed, he almost overcomes the script’s determined attempts to make the character look bad. Douglas takes a one-dimensional role and adds some humanity while he avoids the pitfalls that come with any take on Liberace. Douglas delivers the requisite campiness that goes with the part but he doesn’t go over the top; he creates a pretty full personality, not a caricature.

Too bad he does so in a flick that feels way too Boogie Nights for my liking. Did Soderbergh consciously borrow from that 1997 classic? Perhaps not, but it sure feels that way. Thorson comes across as a cut-rate Dirk Diggler, and he follows a similar path; heck, like Dirk, he even wants to be a musician!

I expect more from Soderbergh than this. Does Candelabra entertain? Often, though it fizzles as it progresses. The first half offers the most fun, especially during overtly comedic scenes like those with a plastic surgeon; Rob Lowe delivers a delicious performance as the sleazy doctor, and amusement results.

However, between the movie’s focus on boring old Scott and its apparent desire to taint Liberace’s legacy, Candelabra becomes a disappointment. The film lacks insights and often feels like little more than a gratuitous exploration of sex, drugs and piano music.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus D+

Behind the Candelabra appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. This was a generally positive presentation.

Sharpness usually looked good, as the majority of the flick demonstrated nice clarity and accuracy. Some shots could be a bit soft, but those didn’t present notable distractions and they reflected the film’s visual choices. I witnessed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge haloes failed to appear. I also didn’t see any signs of source defects.

Expect a restricted palette here. The movie went with a yellow or orange tone much of the time, though some chilly blues and lush reds also appeared. Within those parameters, the colors were fine; they never excelled, but they worked for the movie. Blacks were pretty deep and firm, while shadows looked clear and smooth. We got a mostly nice image here.

As for the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, it was decidedly low-key. Music and dialogue dominated the film. The score showed nice stereo spread, but effects had little to do. The track featured minor environmental information and that was about it; nightclub scenes added a bit of breadth but this was almost always a subdued mix.

Not that this restricted scope was a bad thing, as the movie didn’t need auditory fireworks, and at least quality was good. Speech appeared concise and crisp, without edginess or other problems.

Music came across as full, while effects demonstrated nice accuracy. They were so subdued that they never threatened to tax my system, but they seemed fine. The flick’s restricted soundscape meant it featured an average mix, but it suited the material.

Only one extra shows up here: a featurette called The Making of Behind the Candelabra. It runs 14 minutes, three seconds and provides comments from executive producer Jerry Weintraub, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, Liberace Foundation chairman Brian Paco Alvarez, Liberace’s employee/friend Nathan Miller, location manager Caleb Duffy, production designer Howard Cummings, set decorator Barbara Munch, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, Hargate Costumes owner Mary Ellen Fields, and actors Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds, and Dan Aykroyd.

We learn about story/character areas, cast and performances, notes about Liberace, sets and locations, costumes and props, and general thoughts. Essentially promotional in nature, “Making of” throws out a handful of good notes, mainly related to costumes and sets. It’s too insubstantial to be memorable, though.

While often fairly entertaining, Behind the Candelabra leaves a bad taste. I don’t mind the movie’s sex sequences; while I don’t enjoy them, they don’t bother me. However, I think the film seems one-sided and one-dimensional. The Blu-ray delivers generally good picture and audio but lacks notable bonus materials. Let’s hope Steven Soderbergh reneges on his promise to retire, as I’d hate for such a good director to go out on such a low note.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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