For the past decade or so, the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics have taken on the screen-filling dizziness and the ooooh-inducing chutzpah of that other mid-year spectacle, the summer blockbuster. In 2008, Chinese director Zhang Yimou threw down a delicate gauntlet, filling Beijing National Stadium with a sea of drummers, a gorgeous LED painting scroll, and a puppet opera. Four years later, Oscar winner Danny Boyle took over London’s Olympic Stadium, bringing out a Sgt. Pepper-like cavalcade of English pop figures real and imagined (including Mr. Bean, J.K. Rowling, and Daniel Craig as James Bond) as well as smoke-billowing chimneys and sky-high Olympic Rings.
— U.S. Olympic Team (@TeamUSA) August 6, 2016
The events combined pageantry and history, mixed in a bit of star power, and set (perhaps unfairly) high expectations for this year’s ceremony, directed by City of God filmmaker Fernando Meirelles. He and his team worked with a smaller budget than their predecessors, but offered something that combined high-tech showmanship with low-budget ingenuity to create a ceremony pulsing with vibrant imagery, glorious music, and a few social messages.
The show began with a filmed segment, set to Gilberto Gil’s alluring 1969 hit “Aquele Abraço” (“That Embrace”), featuring aerial shots of athletes making their way around Rio: We saw soccer players and skateboarders traversing the city; kayakers and swimmers taking to the beach; a hang-glider floating above a forest. From there, the scene moved to Maracanã Stadium, where Mylar-clad performers used giant, shimmering sheets of the material to create dancing triangles and squares. Was it wonderful to look at? Yep. Did it remind me a bit of Andy Warhol’s famed Silver Clouds? Definitely! Did it make a whole lot of sense? Not really, but part of the thrill of an event like this is being immersed in the region’s culture with a minimum of curiosity-dampening hand-holding.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 6, 2016
From there, the show quickly shifted toward its first key theme of the evening: The environment, expressed via a quick overview of the birth of the planet. Digital waves crashed across the stadium floor, as performers strutted about carrying massive (and massively cool) stick-figure insects, representing the explosion of life in the Amazon. Though digital projectors played a big part in the ceremony, the puppet-bugs—as well as the half-submerged ships that would rise and fall from the floor shortly thereafter—were a likably lo-fi indication that the ceremony’s producers had found a way to turn the event’s (relatively) limited financial resources into a call for ingenuity, not a liability.
And, to their credit, the creators didn’t flinch from addressing the region’s history, no matter how difficult. Descendants of the country’s original indigenous settlers took the stage, taking hold of brightly slit strips of green, and a long, poignant number paid respect to the slave laborers who’d helped build the country over not decades, but centuries. Overall, there was an openness to the proceedings—an acknowledgment that, on the sort of global stage the Olympics provides, there’s a chance to reckon with the past, to include those who were overlooked or abused, and to bring them all together in our celebration of now. (As to that other history lesson of the night, in which viewers were informed that Brazilian pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont—whose doppelganger took flight at the ceremony in a giant plane made of boxes—is the true father of aviation … well, the experts can settle this at Kitty Hawk.)
For the most part, though, the opening ceremony was about celebration—expressed, to near envy-inducing degrees, by movement. One highlight of the evening found a team of urban parkour explorers jumping across a sea of city-building roofs that rose from the ground; the effect was dream-like and gorgeous, an IRL videogame being played out before tens of thousands. And then there was the music: Daniel Jobim, grandson of “The Girl From Ipanema” composer Tom Jobim, performed the song as Gisele Bundchen strutted across the stadium; there were turns from Brazilian icons Jorge Ben Jor and Elza Soares (who, at 79, just put out an amazing new record); and the world was introduced to rapper Karol Conka.
And then: dancing! So much dancing! At one point, as ballcap-adorned movers shook around a giant stage of the São Paulo skyline, the floor lit up in a moving, multi-color series of grids that reminded the entire Internet of Q*bert. (For those too young to get the reference: It was a game everyone played in the early ’80s. Look for it to play a major plot point in Season 2 of Stranger Things). At one point, the floor was full of revelers, some of them dressed in shiny, frilly full-bodied costumes—like the Fry Guys, if they’d opened for U2 on the PopMart tour. It was a moment that made excellent use of the most low-budget effect of all—pure joy—capped by TV presenter Regina Casé’s heartfelt admonition to Rio, and the world: “Here is to diversity. Let’s dance!”
And then, the world just kinda … ended. The opening event’s finale was a well-intentioned, slightly clumsy call for climate-change awareness, one that relied a bit too much on stilted narration and busy infographics and images of what a bunch of cities would look like under water. On TV, at least, the celebration of Earth felt flat, thanks in part to NBC’s constant cutting away from the actual on-stage action—
—Oh, and since I’m on the topic, let’s talk about NBC for a second (though we may have to talk over NBC’s gabby on-air talent to actually be heard). I get it, I get it: The overlords at Kabletown or whatever want the network to squeeze as much moolah out of this as possible, especially because, by the 2100 Olympics, people will be watching the ceremony on their space-shoes. But couldn’t NBC’s overlords and on-air blabber-jabbers have at least tried to a) let the first hour play out without interruption, so as to not break up a lovingly crafted, carefully paced event; and b) shut up during the musical numbers? NBC on-air people, you’re like the two broker-dudes and their wives who pay $1,110 to sit at the front row of Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, just so they can yell, “DID YOU KNOW THIS SONG WAS WRITTEN ABOUT CHRISTIE BRINKLEY? REALLY! SO WAS ‘THAT’S NOT HER STYLE.’ ANYWAY, WANT ANOTHER VODKA-CRANBERRY?” while Billy sings “Uptown Girl.”
Anyway, what was I talking about again? Oh, right: The we’re-all-doomed finale, which actually finished with a nice moment in which a young boy pulls a plant from the ground—and in which a speaker announces that each of the Olympic athletes will be given a seed, to be placed here in Brazil. It was a nice note to go out on before the Parade of Nations began, and a fitting metaphor for an event that, while it may have lacked the blockbuster sheen of other years, eventually grew into something unpredictable and beautiful in its own right.