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By Daniel Lammin
18th November 2013

When Steven Soderbergh released his medical thriller ‘Side Effects’ last year, it was a bit of an anticlimax. The acclaimed filmmaker had announced that he was leaving cinema behind and turning his head towards other mediums, but as a swan song, ‘Side Effects’ seemed very slight and lifeless. As it turns out, he still had one more story left to tell - and though he turned to HBO to help him tell it, the result was so exhilarating that it stands up against any cinema release this year. In fact, this is the project Soderbergh and his fans have been waiting for, his biography of flamboyant 70s entertainer Liberace.

Based on the memoirs of Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson, ‘Behind the Candelabra’ covers the relationship between Thorson (Matt Damon), a classically handsome young blonde man from the country and the much older and beloved Liberace (Michael Douglas) during the 70s and 80s. One of the most popular celebrities in the world, Liberace keeps his sexuality and relationship a secret hidden behind glitz and glamour, a tricky rope for Scott to walk. As Lee’s hold on Scott gets tighter, the seams of their unusual relationship begin to unravel.

If ‘Side Effects’ saw Soderbergh a tad lacklustre and uninterested, ‘Behind the Candelabra’ is the complete antithesis. This is bold, brassy, breathless filmmaking, a giddy fever dream of a time and place built on extreme opulence and surrealism. As well as director, he acts as cinematographer and editor (under pseudonyms), and that complete control over the technical aspects creates a holistic vision sometimes lacking with lesser filmmakers. The production design is tremendous and startlingly detailed, every frame filled with garish gold, silver and endless rhinestones. In terms of capturing an era on screen, the team behind the film have done a remarkable job. Just as noteworthy is Ricjard LaGravenese’s screenplay, devoid of cliché or judgement, which zips along with terrific pace. There is a great clarity in the writing of the many characters, each as distinct as the last. It’s very rich material for not only the filmmakers, but the ridiculous cast assembled. Michael Douglas gives one of his finest performances, the best kind of evocation of a famous figure. He doesn’t imitate Liberace, which would be an easier route, but an inhabiting of the man. His performance is filled with so much life and colour and unbelievable energy, and not an ounce of judgement or camp indulgence. The film belongs to him, and if you need any reason to see this film, Michael Douglas is it. That said, the immense size of Douglas’ performance does overshadow the equally impressive work of Matt Damon, who gives Scott a tragic gentleness that balances perfectly with Liberace’s flamboyance. Scott is placed as the central protagonist of the film, and as such, the fact he is having a relationship with a much older man sits easier because, for him, there is nothing but love between him and Lee. This is such a mature and refreshing decision, and Damon has to take some of the credit for that. Other highlights include Rob Lowe as Liberace’s grotesque and hysterical plastic surgeon Jack Startz and Debbie Reynolds as his steely yet charismatic mother Frances.


After years of trying to get ‘Behind the Candelabra’ off the ground, HBO is certainly the home for it. Major studios wouldn’t have the guts to take the gamble on such material - which is a pity, because there’s nothing risky about it. Soderbergh has capped off an extraordinary career with a wonderful film, a moving portrait of an unusual but honest relationship between two people intensely in love, one of whom just happens to be probably the most flamboyant person who has ever lived. ‘Behind the Candelabra’ is a true event you simply cannot miss.

So much of ‘Behind the Candelabra’ is about its visuals, and thankfully, Roadshow’s 1.85:1 1080p transfer preserves Soderbergh’s intentions. The whole film has a hazy opulence to it. The glass shines brighter, the gold glimmers stronger, the waxy quality of Liberace’s stuffed and pulled face is suitably shiny. If you were after crystal sharp, you won’t find it here, but this is exactly the way it should be. This is an indulgent-looking film, and all the better for it. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track isn’t going to give your speakers a workout, but places everything clearly, which makes sense with the film’s television origins. Overall, a terrific presentation for a terrific film.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much on offer in terms of special features. All we have is a 13-minute making-of featurette that has great material, but not enough to be satisfying. There’s even a suggestion that there might have been more material shot we haven’t been given here. HBO isn’t in the habit of double-dipping their releases, so this is probably all we’re going to get.

RUN TIME: 01h 58m
CAST: Matt Damon - Scott Thorson
Michael Douglas - Liberace
Rob Lowe
Dan Aykroyd - Seymour Heller
Debbie Reynolds - Frances
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
WRITER: Richard Lagravenese
PRODUCER: Jerry Weintraub
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